The Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus made its first foray into the world of the living on Friday at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington after a two-year hiatus, and it was certainly a pleasure to hear the nearly 60-voice ensemble . They were joined by eight VSO brass and three percussionists for an uplifting spring concert. (The program was repeated Saturday at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland.)
Still, the concert was marred by the absence of ensemble director José-Daniel Flores-Caraballo, who pulled out almost at the last minute due to COVID. Fortunately, he was replaced by the talented Dawn Willis, one of Vermont’s finest choirmasters. The choir was often joined by organist Mark Howe (Alastair Stout in Rutland).
The highlight of the concert was John Rutter’s flamboyant Gloria from 1974 which closed the program. Here the choir, brass, percussion and organ had the opportunity to fill the cathedral with glorious sound, and they did. The opening “Gloria in excelsis Deo” was bright, brassy and earnestly rhythmic. Willis delivered the brilliance while keeping his forces disciplined. The thin-sounding choir – despite wearing masks throughout the program – along with the instrumentalists kept the excitement going throughout the opening movement.
Part 2, the “Domine Deus (O Lord God)”, began with an organ solo joined quietly by the choir. This began to become the final brassy “Quoniam tu solus sanctus (For you alone are holy.” This burst became the explosive “Gloria in excelsis Deo”.
Directed by Willis, the Gloria sounded great. The singers were full of energy, the organ, brass and percussion were brilliant. In short, it was “magnificent”.
Just before the Gloria, Howe, the Cathedral Organist and Choirmaster, delivered a poetic solo rendition of JS Bach’s Toccata in C major, BWV 564. It’s a showcase for the organ and Howe delivered a delightfully brilliant rendition. (José-Daniel Flores-Caraballo was to perform the work.)
The one-hour program opened with three varied pieces that benefited from the brilliance of the VSO’s eight brass instruments and three percussionists. They covered a wide spectrum, from Adam Gorb’s elegant “A Little Tango Music” (2007), to Renaissance composer Tielman Susato’s charming Four Dances (1551) (arranged by Masahiro Shuraiwa), to the elegant waltz of Cajun by Frank Ticheli. Folk Songs (1990). The VSO players were in top form, whetting our appetites for the summer festival tour July 1-10, 2022.
The VSO Chorus came up with five more songs, some with accompaniment, some without. The spiritual a cappella work “Abide with Me” (1998) by Moses Hogan was not so successful. The roughness was likely due to inadequate rehearsal – and possibly the last-minute change of conductors.
Conversely, John Mulholland’s 1980 staging of Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” was a delight. Organist Mark Howe and the women of the VSO Chorus played a particularly important role in realizing the sweet power of this beautiful work.
The VSO Chorus did not perform or rehearse for two years before preparing for this program and despite this they delivered beautiful singing and passion. It will only get better.