Baker, known for his work with the DeKalb Choral Guild, has since relocated to Kansas, but the conductor returns to Atlanta every summer, putting together and preparing the 150-voice group for their annual concert. No auditions are necessary, and the singers come from a variety of backgrounds and experience, many returning year after year to participate.
In their 12th annual concert last weekend, held at Peachtree Christian Church, Baker explained to the large audience that the choir, newly formed each year, has only eight rehearsals in which to prepare a complicated choral program.
To the cynical, prefacing a concert with this pronouncement might seem like saying, "Please excuse our mistakes."
For the most part, no apologies were necessary. The concert featured a program of all-religious works of varying degrees of difficulty, the acid test being the "Solemn Vespers" by Mozart. The Singers performed with a full-bodied, vibrant sound that often was quite beautiful and well-balanced and blended throughout.
Unfortunately, from the beginning, this group's biggest problem became crystal clear -- diction that wasn't.
Diction to a choir is what pedaling is to a pianist. It affects the phrasing, the interpretation -- it's the very breath of the instrument. Those of us who grew up with Robert Shaw's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus have been spoiled by decades of listening to absolutely perfect diction. When it's missing, nothing else can compensate, and a beautiful sound becomes meaningless. Throughout the concert, muddy diction produced ragged cut-offs, sloppy sibilants and incomprehensible words, frustrating the listener with a sense of what might have been, given the potential of this group.
The "Solemn Vespers" by Mozart was sung well enough, with delicate underplaying by the chamber orchestra. But the dynamic shadings were a little too subtle -- one wanted it to build more. It didn't take off until the famous "Laudate Dominum," into which the choir finally sank its chops. Soprano soloist Lucy H. Stembridge handled the fiendishly difficult long phrases of the solo with aplomb and a lovely sound.
In a musical juxtaposition Mozart would have delighted in, the "Solemn Vespers" was followed by a gospel set. Alas, in this case the choir was mismatched with some really mediocre music.
Two pieces by Keith Hampton, "Praise His Holy Name" and "My God is an Awesome God," came across as fake gospel -- way too white bread. The choir's obvious enjoyment as they sang with gusto nevertheless could not compensate for the idiomatic differences in style, which escaped them. But one couldn't help feeling that if they had sung the Mozart with the same brio and vocal energy, we would have really heard something memorable.
A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "His Light Still Shines" by Moses Hogan was well-intentioned, but not well-constructed. Like many contemporary musical tributes, it was overblown, loaded with portentous pronouncement and rhetorical sentiment. The elaborately worded text, read by WAGA TV personality Trevor Pettiford, often was drowned out by the choir, which was probably for the best.
It was obviously one of those things put together to inspire goose bumps in the audience, and if it had been less pretentious and mediocre, it would have.
As it was, it fell short of even being interesting, but served as a reminder that a return to simplicity in contemporary choral music would not be a bad thing.
Overall, the Summer Singers achieved some very good, if not great, singing. Given better contemporary material and a longer rehearsal time, their concerts could evolve into a major cultural event of Atlanta's summer months -- and heaven knows we need one.
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