Monday, June 4, 2012

Choral Societies Capture Grandeur and Beauty of the Sea

(This essay will be published as a music review of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 1  in D major "A Sea Symphony," and Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 in C minor "Organ Symphony,"  by the Connecticut Choral Society and the New Jersey Choral Society under the baton of Maestro Eric Dale Knapp at The Fine Arts Center at Naugatuck Valley Community College on June 3rd 2012).

Wave Series-Momentum  by Ira Barkoff, whose
 work was featured as part of the multimedia
experience which accompanied the
performance of A Sea Symphony

    “Behold the Sea!”  Indeed.  On Sunday (June 3rd) a capacity crowd at the Naugatuck Valley Community College Fine Arts Center in Waterbury did just that, as the Connecticut Choral Society joined forces with the New Jersey Choral Society under the masterful direction of Maestro Eric Dale Knapp, in a stunning performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ neglected masterpiece, his Symphony No.1 in D major, known as A Sea Symphony.

    It is lamentable that so many works of Vaughan Williams, one of England’s greatest composers, remain underperformed. Most music lovers know Vaughan Williams as the British composer who often used pastoral and folksong themes in creating distinctively “English traditional” compositions, but in A Sea Symphony, he crafted a truly modern, all-encompassing musical treasure. Modern as in Mahler, Debussy, and Stravinsky; and all-encompassing as the sea.

    In this, his first large-scale orchestral work, Vaughan Williams created a transcendent choral symphony with solo voices, set to a text drawn from Walt Whitman’s monumental book of poems, “Leaves of Grass,” written in what was then the still controversial style of free verse. Vaughan Williams labored for over six years, from 1903 to 1909, on both which verses of Whitman’s elegiac poetry to use and on the score itself, before premiering A Sea Symphony at the Leeds Festival in 1910.

    To be sure, other composers had previously written music about the ocean. In the 1830s, Felix Mendelssohn wrote three symphonic overtures on the subject, the most popular of which has come down to us as “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” and Claude Debussy wrote his atmospheric tone poem, La Mer (The Sea), in 1905. But neither composer had the grand vision  which Vaughan Williams  had  imagined  and  then  actualized in A Sea Symphony,  composed in a way that had never been conceived before, wherein the vocal forces, both soloists and full choral ensembles, shine throughout all of its four movements.

    Vaughan Williams’ unique talent for creating what can be aptly described as “pictures in sound” resulted in memorable and moving melodies in his large-scale compositions. From the opening of A Sea Symphony, the listener is awash in its brilliant chords, which lead directly into an exultant D major chorus rejoicing in and announcing the sea. There is a revolutionary, indeed transformative originality in the chordal structure of this work, even in comparison to Vaughan Williams’ later output, that at times verges on the mystical or religious. Awe-inspiring, mysterious, majestic and compelling are adjectives which can only suggest vast portions of this symphony, and thus, the awesome power of the sea itself.

    The combined forces of the Connecticut Choral Society and the New Jersey Choral Society seamlessly collaborated in their ensemble passages throughout the work to create a shimmering wall of sound, which conjured the oceanic waves. A superb orchestra of selected first-chair players accompanied the singers and convincingly essayed the ascending and descending chromatic passages, evoking those very wave-like undulations. The choruses sang the accompanying melodic lines splendidly, and crisply adjusted to the abrupt changes in dynamics and tempo, channeling in music the fury of fickle weather and water on the high seas.  It is testimony to Maestro Knapp’s conducting technique - precise or grandly gesturing as called for – that he was able to draw such texture and nuance from this fine collaboration of instrumentalists and vocalists.

    The excellent soprano Jessica Rivera made the most of her several brilliant solo turns, intelligently informing her musical lines, with her upper register especially radiant and blooming in the second movement. Mark Womack’s clarion and dramatic baritone voice was ideally suited to announce the power of the ocean in his elegant solo work in the first and third movements. The two singers also had moments of sublime vocal duet, richly intertwining their voices.

     Maestro Knapp has developed a well-deserved reputation for curating "musical concept"  performances that  are truly visionary in scope and incorporate many of the various art forms. Whitman’s complete verses from Leaves of Grass that Vaughan Williams used in his score were all included in the deeply referenced program book. The concert itself began with a prelude that was thoughtfully chosen to complement the Vaughan Williams work, namely the spectacular last movement of Camille Saint-Saens’ magisterial Symphony No.3 in C Minor, which showcased the Choral Societies' accomplished organist (and accompanist) Linda Sweetman-Waters. Before the performance, there was a fascinating and visually rich lecture by Professor Laura Dolp of Montclair State University on the nautical history of England. And, to top it off, the foyer of the Fine Arts Center was festooned with paintings by a number of prominent maritime artists, including Ira Barkoff, Joanne Conant and Charles Raskob Robinson, accompanied by several scaled-down models of the great ocean liners of yesteryear, handcrafted by Michael Jedd, to complete this  thoroughly immersive, interactive and kaleidoscopic feast for all of the senses. 

    An additional acknowledgment needs to be made about the core of this superb group of musicians.  Both the Connecticut Choral Society and the New Jersey Choral Society are fully comprised of dedicated non-paid, amateur vocalists. The word “amateur” stems from the Latin, “amare,” meaning “to love.”  These singers’ evident love of performing the great vocal literature is a splendid example of amateurism at its finest, and we as listeners are the beneficiaries of their abiding musical passions.

Storm by Joanne Conant,
whose works were also
featured at the performance of
A Sea Symphony
Copyright 2012  Vincent P. de Luise  M.D.   A  Musical Vision


  1. Lovely review. Thank you.

    P.S. it is Vaughan not Vaughn.

    1. Thank you Virginia. You are correct. It is indeed "Vaughan" and not "Vaughn." It was a late-night essay writing project !
      I have made the changes, as well as some other edits.
      Please re-read it for accuracy if you have the time.