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February 6, 2007

Strings and singers rock out in winter concert

No Chicagoan who left the house this weekend needed a groundhog to know that winter will have its way with the Windy City for as many more weeks as it damn well pleases. Nonetheless, a sizeable audience braved the subzero temperatures and wind chill advisory, filing into the vestibule of Rockefeller Chapel on Saturday to attend the Department of Music’s nominally trans-seasonal concert event: Groundhog Day—Music for the Pagan Festival of Lights.

Groundhog Day featured the University Chamber Orchestra under conductor William C. White, and the Motet Choir and University Chorus, both led by conductor James Kallembach. Apropos of the holiday’s French and German origins, all but two songs were sung in one of those language.

The concert took off with the rchestra’s performance of an excerpt fromWinter, from Haydn’s The Seasons. The orchestra delivered a sound performance, though tempo issues arose in the string section and became quickly apparent during the Recitative and Aria. At that point, the orchestra bounded a step ahead of soloist Nicholas Harkness.

A doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology, Harkness is an accomplished, if somewhat quiet tenor. His airy voice usually matched the orchestra’s volume, but occasionally the brass and timpani would swallow his words.

Several seconds after the applause for Harkness and the orchestra had died away, the Motet Choir roused any hibernating audience members with the arresting a capella harmonies of Paul Hindemith’s En Hiver (In Winter) from Six Chansons. The choir performed from the organ gallery above and behind the audience, which forced concertgoers to either twist around in their pews like restless Sunday school children or stare into space while listening to disembodied voices.

Serendipitously, the latter option had its points. The relative invisibility of the vocalists added an otherworldly sheen to the already haunting composition. Paired with nearly flawless execution, the Choir’s location made their performance seem like an angelic serenade. Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, while thematically out of place, was perhaps the choir’s most memorable number, striking ethereal chords and issuing the decidedly pagan-sounding chant of “Leonardo” from time to time.

Any concert featuring multiple ensembles inevitably faces the predicament of dividing the spotlight evenly among each group. The problem appears especially often in combined vocal and instrumental performances like Groundhog Day—the orchestra often loses itself amid an excess of vocal pieces, supposedly made up for by a joint finale in which the woefully outnumbered instrumentalists can barely be heard above the singers.

Still, the Groundhog Day performance surpassed expectations. The orchestra picked up where it left off with six excerpts from Haydn’s Spring, over the course of which the vocalists and instrumentalists were showcased equally. Because the Chorus’ and Choir’s combined forces of a hundred-plus members only performed half the excerpts, the orchestra had an unexpectedly democratic share of the sound.

Vocal soloists in the final number included Harkness, fourth-year music major Emily Robinson, and Columbia College voice faculty member Andrew Schulze, also a soloist in the Rockefeller Chapel Choir.

Robinson and Schulze’s contributions were by no means adventitious. With her impressive dynamic range, Robinson stunned the crowd. Her clear, full voice soared to the carillons and sank expertly back to the cobbles in a matter of seconds. During her duet with Harkness in the Freudenlied section, Robinson’s ability to project had the unfortunate effect of obscuring Harkness’s more hushed tone. Schulze’s rich, orotund bass-baritone provided a better contrast to Robinson’s seasoned soprano.

Surprisingly, if any group went slightly underrepresented, it was the chorus, for lack of having a section of the concert all to itself. Still, the chorus performed admirably, giving momentum and drama to the three excerpts they accompanied.