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Chamber Orchestra and Chorale open season

Jonathan Retartha | Friday, November 14, 2003

The sounds of Bach and Schubert echoed through the ceilings of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart Wednesday night as the University of Notre Dame Chorale and Chamber Orchestra presented their fall concert.

The majority of the Basilica’s nave was full of spectators as the Chamber Orchestra and Chorale opened their performance season. The Notre Dame Chorale was started in 1974 and is the official concert choir of the University. The Chamber Orchestra was started in 1994 by the current director of choral music, Alexander Blachly.

Blachly is an associate professor of music at Notre Dame and has served as director since 1993. Since earning his postgraduate degrees in musicology from Columbia University, he has gone on to found the acclaimed vocal ensemble Pomerium, which specializes in recording a capella Renaissance music.

In addition to teaching at Notre Dame, Blachly has been a music educator at Columbia, New York University, Rutgers, and the University of Pennsylvania. Along with his teaching and directing duties, he also co-directs the Schola Musicorum of Notre Dame with Calvin M. Bower and hosts a radio program Wednesdays on WSND.

The audition process for the Notre Dame chorale is very similar to the auditions held for the other vocal groups on campus.

“We have general chorale auditions on [freshman] orientation weekend,” Blachly said. At these auditions, all of the directors of the vocal groups are present, and the applicants choose a preference of what program with which they would like to be involved.

“The kids just audition once,” Blachly said, “and almost always they tend to get in their first choice. The priority, however, is in assigning students into the programs with which they fit the best. They [the different vocal groups] have different personalities, different sounds,” Blachly said. “Some that may be suited for one choir may not be as well suited for another.”

The Chamber Orchestra is comprised of students from the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra, and the University bands. Students who choose to participate in the Chamber Orchestra are active members of both the Chamber and Symphony Orchestras, an effort that demands a different level of devotion.

“They have to want to do it,” Blachly said, “They have to be pretty dedicated.”

The Chamber Orchestra and Chorale are two of a small collection of organizations at Notre Dame that cater directly to freshmen and give underclassmen a chance to be prominent figures early on in the program.

“It tends to be weighted towards freshmen, partly because when they come in, they know they like to sing, but they don’t know about all the other wonderful things there are to do,” Blachly said.

Even though the program has a hard time keeping students involved for all four years, the opportunities for freshmen to get involved with something their first year and to meet people is a unique and rewarding experience.

The thing that sets the Chamber Orchestra apart from the Symphony Orchestra is its repertoire. “They [the Symphony] do big 19th century orchestras,” Blachly said. “Chamber does mostly Baroque music.”

This contrast in musical styles stems from the fact that the Chamber Orchestra is a much smaller group, consisting of 16 students playing violins, violas, cellos, basses, oboes and harpsichords. The absence of other instruments warrants the 18th century Baroque style.

As for the Chorale, its music repertoire is somewhat limited due to the venue for their performances. Since the fall and spring concerts are in the Basilica, the Chorale may only sing non-secular texts, that is, liturgical music. To Blachly, though, this limitation is “hardly a hardship.” Blachly adds, “We sing in the basilica because it’s got a fantastic acoustic, and because it’s got a fantastic atmosphere; it’s kind of a magic place there, and a wonderful place for concerts.” The Chorale has a membership of around 50 students in all vocal ranges who are involved with every field of study at the University.

Wednesday night’s performance featured individual performances from the Chorale and Chamber Orchestra, as well as a combined piece. The concert opened with the Chamber Orchestra performing “Ouverture in D” by Georg Philipp Telemann. The Chorale then took the stage, set up on the altar of the Basilica, and performed two pieces from Antonio Lotti’s “Mass in A.” The “Kyrie” and the “Agnus (Lamb of God)” are both essential parts to the contemporary Roman Catholic Mass, and the Chorale illuminated them both through the unique arrangement and traditional Latin text. The Chorale went on to perform Franz Schubert’s arrangement of “Salve Regina,” which features the verse inscribed on the seal of the Brothers of the Holy Cross that describes Our Lady as “Our life, sweetness, and hope.” They then performed Cristóbal de Morales’s 16th century adaptation of Psalm 17, “Circumdederunt Me,” which is a short passage that laments, “The groans of death have surrounded me; the sorrows of hell have surrounded me.” The Chorale then presented their first piece in English, a three-part arrangement of Orlando Gibbons’s “A Hymne to God the Father,” which implores the Lord for forgiveness for a life of sin.

The Chamber Orchestra then returned to the stage and performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,” with selections from the Allegro and Adagio portions of the piece. “The reason we were able to do the 3rd Brandenburg tonight is because we had strong violas,” notes Blachly. He also went on to say that a strong viola section has often been hard to find in his experience and that being fortunate enough to have Adam Shanko and Christina Knuth provided the opportunity to perform the “Brandenburg” for the first time in close to 10 years.

The Chorale returned and performed “Nunc Dimittis,” by Henry Purcell, an arrangement of Luke 2:29, which provides the source for the “Glory Be” which is recited during such services as the Rosary. They then performed two by Francis Poulenc. The first was “Videntes Stellam,” based on Matthew 2:11, which describes the Magi’s trip to shower the newborn Jesus with gifts. The second, “Timor et Tremor” is based on Psalms 54, 6, and 30, and reflects a fear for the Lord and an imploring for His help. The Chorale’s two graduate assistants, Ivana Savanosová and Stephen Lancaster, respectively conducted each piece. What makes “Circumdederunt Me,” “Nunc Dimittis,” “Videntes Stellam,” and “Timor et Tremorso” unique is that they are very short scripture passages sung in many different ways and combinations of voices that lend themselves to five- or six-minute pieces.

Finally, the Chamber Orchestra joined the Chorale on stage and gave a combined performance of Bach’s Cantata, “Aus der Tiefen (Out of the Depths).” The Cantata is an arrangement of Psalm 130 in five parts. The first movement is titled “Aus der Tiefen,” and is based on verses one and two of Psalm 130. The second movement, based on the third and fourth verses, is titled “So du Willst,” and featured Matthew Smedberg as the bass soloist.

Smedberg gave an inspiring performance filled with very low notes held for long periods. “Ich Harre des Herrn,” the third movement, is based on verse five and is three simple verses presented with remarkable depth and complexity by the Chorale. The fourth movement, “Meine Seele Wartet,” featured Brian Manternach of the music Department as the guest tenor soloist.

The concert concluded with Bach’s fifth movement, titled “Israel, Hoffe auf den Herrn,” based on verses seven and eight of Psalm 130. “The Bach cantata tonight was selected because we had a great bass singer to sing the bass solo,” Blachly said, and “we have three wonderful oboes.”

In addition to the fall and spring concerts, the Chamber Orchestra and Chorale annually perform George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” during the Christmas season. This year’s performances will be Dec. 3-5. The Chamber Orchestra and Chorale also perform a concert during Commencement weekend and at the Baccalaureate Mass.

As with many of the other performing groups at Notre Dame, the Chamber Orchestra and Chorale have a tradition of performing around the country during semester breaks. They have three trips to Florida, four to New Orleans and many to Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Ind. They have also performed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Louisville, St. Louis and Chicago, among other locations.

Blachly explained that all of the tours work in basically the same way. Many of the touring opportunities present for the Notre Dame Chorale and Chamber Orchestra come from the benefit of Notre Dame’s strong Alumni Association. They have a student in charge who begins by choosing a general section of the country they want to tour in. They then call alumni groups in that area to see which ones would like to sponsor performances.

“We’ll get one concert set before the others, and the rest fall into place,” said Blachly. Every three years, the group travels abroad during the summer, performing in such locations as Rome, Orvieto, Spoleto, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Venice, Padua, Bavaria and Austria.

The Chorale and Chamber Orchestra have two recordings on CD. The first is “Cantate Domino,” featuring a portion of their “Messiah” performances. The second is “The Notre Dame Chorale in Concert” and features large selections from Handel, Joseph Haydn, Orlande de Lassus and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In all, the concert provided for a wonderful evening of classical music that was enjoyed by the “respectful and enthusiastic” crowd, Blachly said.

The skill needed for such difficult pieces presented in several languages reflects the hard work put into rehearsing for the evening’s performance. The Orchestra blended very well as a group for such a small ensemble, and it balanced itself very well with the Chorale in the Cantata.

“I thought the kids did great,” Blachly said. He, along with his performers, looks forward now to “Messiah” in December, an event that normally brings sellout crowds each year to Washington Hall.

Contact Jonathan Retartha at jretarth@nd.edu