UA’s Schola Cantorum premieres with new director

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 214 views 

At a time when gratuitous concert hall standing ovations are the norm, it is refreshing to attend a performance when the ovation is resoundingly deserved.

This was the case Thursday night (Nov. 8) at Walton Arts Center for the University of Arkansas’ Schola Cantorum performance titled "Abendmusiken."

Under the direction of Dr. Stephen Caldwell the program's music time span ranged from the 17th to the 21st century and included works by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), Franz Tunder (1614-1667), J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Dieterich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707), and Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978).

The common programming thread was as simple as it was bold: offer exceptional music selections performed by exceptional musicians.

Rheinberger’s "Abendlied" started the evening. The text ("Bide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day itself is spent," Luke 24-29) was a perfect start and the opening sound of Schola under its new director was as perfectly reassuring as it was beautiful. In “Abendlied” Schola presented a complex wall of sound that was gentle, lush and romantic. The audience was swept away early on by the compelling elegance of it all.

Throughout the evening Caldwell resisted temptation to over-do or to overstate and "Abendlied" was the first indication what was in store.

J.S. Bach's Cantata "Der Herr, denket an uns" (BWV 196) was an artful example of restraint and splendor.  The Bach was filled with poignant well-balanced melismas that danced lightly continuously as they were passed from section to section then placed lovingly against passages of long melodic lines.

BWV 196 was never presented with a heavy hand. It was refreshing to hear this wedding cantata performed with such joyful, soulful yet tight focused light-heartedness. It was the right musical attitude and although the singers performed with confidence they never let their voices brag or beg for ovation. Last night Schola and Caldwell constantly served the music and the results, especially on the five-movement Bach cantata, were delightful and moving.

The orchestra of mostly UA music faculty provided an accompaniment foundation that never required the choir to over sing.

They performed with both skill and aplomb during their brief instrumental passages.  Again, the evening was all about restraint and splendor and the orchestra remained within those admirable boundaries.

If "Abendlied" was the perfect curtain opener then Ola Gjeilo's "Dark Night of the Soul" was the perfect closer. The 15-minute, one movement work from the twenty-first century, transcends music history and defies genres. It was the perfect way to sum up and end the evening.

"Dark Night" is a work that immediately engages. Last night’s WAC audience remained excited from the first measure until the satisfying last. The work was a triumph of live performance as the choir and orchestra moved from one passage to another, from one mood to another, from one century to another, with oneness. Hearing so many voices create art as one organism was it’s own reward.

At the beginning of the concert, before the music began, Caldwell addressed the audience about composer Franz Tunder (1614-1667) who initiated and established what may have been the world’s first public concerts. Then he spoke of the performance that was about to begin. It was also a first, he said: it was his first full performance as UA's Schola Cantorum's director.

Judging from the sincerity of last night’s standing ovation, it was the first of many.