Janet McGhee and her Battenkill Chorale set up their Sunday afternoon “Northern Lights” concert at Zankel Music Center in the perfect way.
As the 95-voice chorus came on stage, the sold-out crowd watched a video of northern lights playing across the heavens to an eerie and exotic taped score by Per Walden. The mood was set and the haunting and melancholic sounds of short liturgical songs from the pens of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Pavel Chesnokov mirrored the strange wonders in the video’s sky. For Tchaikovsky’s two selections from his 1878 “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” the chorus, which sang all the Russian selections in Russian, sounded mellow, especially in the middle dynamic levels. The men were particularly strong. The sopranos were strained. Baritone Nicholas Lasoff was excellent in his brief solo.
Two of Cesnokov’s selections from the same Liturgy were haunting in the first with the singers using a pure tone. The men were robust in the festive second. Rachmaninoff’s two selections also from the same Liturgy were well done with Lasoff again elegant in a short chant. Soprano Carol Poppe soloed briefly. The chorus sounded well regulated, balanced and especially good in the soft muted tones.
Throughout, McGhee gave the pitches to her a cappella chorus and conducted with expressive hands, strong and clear cutoffs, much feeling and sculpted the phrases eloquently.
A highlight was “Northern Lights” by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-low), written when he was 29 in 2007. He used lots of blues and greens lit by sunlight in a good blend of different sounding vocal lines. Diction of the Norwegian was good. Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ “Northern Lights” (2013) was based on a folk song, sung in English, with tenor Paul Lambert chanting in poignant tones. Members of the local United Methodist Church Handbell and Chime Choir provided color. It was all a bit disorganized, but the concept had merit.
Even more novel was Gjeilo’s “Sunrise Mass” (2008), which had the chorus singing the traditional Latin words against a score powered by a 22-member string orchestra whose sounds did not match the sentiment of the text. But they did match Gjeilo’s celestial imaginings: “The Sphere,” “Sunrise,” “The City,” and “Identity & the Ground.”
Staggered chords shimmered and scales blurred to create mystery. Long vocal lines over pulsing, questing, percussive strings were more akin to a film thriller when the hero embarks on a dangerous task. Vocal lines were independent of each other with lush four-part harmonies. It was quite a mix, but the crowd loved it and gave a standing ovation.