Surrounded by sound in sacred space

Last weekend the Durango Choral Society gave its winter concert, “Saints and Sinners,” at First Methodist Church, which is possibly the best surround-sound space in town.

The Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall has great overall acoustics, but for surround singing, it pales by comparison. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, St. Columba and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship have beautiful settings – two Victorian and one modern. All three are acoustically alive, and as one musician friend smilingly puts it, unforgiving. But seating capacity is smaller than First Methodist.

For 90 singers in a 90-minute program, First Methodist’s big interior space served the musicians well. At the end of the Choral Society concert, two of the three participating choirs spread out along the outer aisles and encircled the audience in a warm, musical embrace. With Director Linda Mack-Berven conducting from the center aisle, the massed choirs sang “Beati Quorum Via,” by Charles Villiers Stanford.

“I’ve wanted to perform this for 16 years,” she said. “It’s one of my top five choral works for all time.”

Based on a Psalm, the piece is part of Stanford’s Three Motets.

“It’s a prayer,” she said. “The Latin translates as: Blessed are the undefiled who walk in the Lord.”

From where I sat at the back, I could hear the whole tapestry as well as a few individual voices. Steve Blaylock stood directly behind me. He’s a pitch-perfect baritone who seemed to anchor my corner of the sanctuary. At the same time, his voice merged into a cloud of music hovering in the space of the tall sanctuary.

The concert began with the Durango Women’s Choir joyfully singing Ola Gjeilo’s “Gloria.” Energized by piano-four-hands accompaniment provided by C. Scott Hagler and Christi Livingston, the work launched a rich evening of music around the dual theme.

The Women’s Choir alternated with the large chorus and the Renaissance singers from Telluride. They, too, opened their set with a Latin chant. In contrast to the bright tone and shimmering vibrato the Women’s Choir, the Renaissance Singers bring a hushed mystery to their performances.

Numbering only nine voices, the ensemble achieves a purity of diction and tone that is remarkable. They can add or delete vibrato at will, often resulting in a pure, straight sound with very subtle shifts in dynamics.

Organized by Karla Brown, the singers presented their opening chant then shifted to a complex work by John Rutter. The singers also premiered a work by member Dalen Stevens, a jazzy spin on the theme of the concert. Mack-Berven conducted the Telluride guests as Brown’s clear and pure soprano is needed to soar above the rest.

Other highlights included Hagler’s rousing new arrangement for the big choir of “Ain’-a That Good News!” The Women’s Choir sang a lyrical trio of songs about grief, balancing the section with two lighthearted “sinner” songs.

Durango Choral Society concerts favor the lecture-recital format. Mack-Berven and many of her colleagues at FLC tend to use the academic hybrid often. The scheme encourages a conductor to introduce each piece with history or information about the composer. By mixing classroom and concert hall, the format introduces an air of informality into an otherwise formal situation.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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