Hartnell Community Choir

By Scott MacClelland

MY FIRST TIME hearing Robin McKee Williams’ Hartnell Community Choir—once college-affiliated, now independent—presented me with some seriously accomplished operatic voices, a fine composer I’d never heard of, a new string quintet called Gabrielle Ensemble and an acoustical paradox that I could not make sense of. 

The event was the choir’s spring concert, Sunday afternoon at Carmel’s Church of the Wayfarer. I got there half an hour early and took a seat in the last pew in the back of the sanctuary. If I could figure how to get farther back I would have; the choir was rehearsing Dark Night of the Soul, a setting by Norwegian composer new to me, Ola Gjeilo, of an ecstatic poem by 16th century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, St John of the Cross. The 16-voice choir was so loud in the church’s extremely lively acoustics that I felt riveted to the back of my seat.

How can that be? As Williams’ concert unfolded it became obvious how much effort, planning and imagination, not to mention talent, went into it. And though I don’t know her personally I do know she comes from a musically sophisticated family. More on the paradox below.

The program opened with a song and some opera arias sung by members of the choir with considerable European credentials and, regionally, important roles at Opera San Jose. The most impressive of them were mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen (Habanera from Carmen), baritone Kiril Havezov (Gabriel Faure’s chanson setting of “En sourdine,” a poem by Paul Verlaine), and baritone Krassen Karagiozov (“Nemico della patria” from Umberto Giordano’s romantic French Revolution opera Andrea Chenier). The pianist was Marina Thomas.     

Then the Gabrielle Ensemble, led by Eldar Hudiev, joined pianist George Peterson to support soprano Jody Lee for Song of the Angel, sung on the single word alleluia, by the English contemporary composer John Tavener. Another Alleluia, with variations, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, used three cellos, two played by student musicians, and a flute. It took three minutes while the piece just ahead of it, Kim Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent of 2011, lasted four. Arnesen, another Norwegian, tenderly set to music words found at a concentration camp after World War 2. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.”

For Gjeilo’s Evening Prayer, to words by St Augustine, the choir was joined by tenor saxophonist Stu Reynolds and pianist Peterson. In triple meter it offered a consoling mood. 

The two major works, Gjeilo’s 13-minute Dark Night and the program’s concluding 25-minute Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen are both set in homophonic texture. There are at least two ways to understand what that means; one of them is to explain the etymology of the word. The other is that one voice is primary while the others group together in a subordinate role, underpinning a chord progression. Yet in this case the different voice parts of the Hartnell choir were competing with one another for dominance, effectively obfuscating the chord progression, at times quite beyond recognition. It was as if the choir members could not hear each other.

That brings up another point: the choir was doing all the work instead of letting the acoustics of the room carry its share. In other words, the choir was singing forte in these two works most of the time when singing piano, or even pianissimo, would have easily filled the room, and, more important, given the performances the dynamic contrasts that allows works like these to achieve their most memorable impact.