A buzz has been building around the National Lutheran Choir since David Cherwien joined as music director in the 2002-2003 season, and several in the choral community are calling him the next Dale Warland. Recently named the 2007 winner of the Raabe Prize for Excellence in Sacred Composition, Cherwien, who is a highly regarded organist, composer, conductor, and clinician in his own right, might not have a hard time achieving that distinction.
But there are similar expectations for the National Lutheran Choir to become the defining non-academic ensemble of the Lutheran choral tradition, taking up where the Dale Warland Singers left off in 2004. Judging from its recognition by Chorus America with the 2007 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence (an honor shared by other Twin Cities choral ensembles, including the former Dale Warland Singers and VocalEssence), it seems to be well on its way.
Because of all of this, I went to its Christmas festival concert, “Behold a Branch,” on Friday night with high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed—it was some of the best choral singing I’ve heard in a long time. The precision, control, uniformity of sound, diction, and rhythm were a pure pleasure to listen to. Though it was the choir’s second concert of the day, it sounded fresh, polished, and beautiful.
Though it’s not a unique construct, the staging and movement of the choir around the vast Basilica was effective and held the audience’s interest both visually and aurally. The concert began and ended with the choir out of sight, which magnified the reflective nature of the concert rather than making it feel like a holiday variety show. Especially impressive was the concert’s opening, which had the women in the choir balcony and the men in the aspe singing alternately at first and then together. The group handled the inherent difficulties of obscured sightlines and acoustical delay with nearly perfect precision of rhythm and intonation. (I admit my glee about that might be a little geeky.)
Poetry and audience-participation carols wrapped around a variety of reflective music with numbers ranging from familiar (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) to modern (“The Sky Can Still Remember Him”), and included some very effective pieces by Minnesota composers, such as the “Winter Solstice Carol” with a Latin antiphon for Christmas by William Beckstrand and a modern setting of Hildegard von Bingen’s “O Viridissima Virga” by Janika Vandervelde. One favorite moment was when the sweet and stunning “Boyo Balu” merged seamlessly into “Silent Night,” sung by the audience and choir together. For me, the highlight of the evening was a setting of an E. E. Cummings poem by Eric Whitacre, “I thank you god for most this amazing day.” It was gorgeous—choked-up, fighting-tears gorgeous.
Occasionally, the choir’s diction seemed a bit false and forced toward the dark side, but given its luxurious uniformity, it’s a small complaint. A larger complaint is: Why do the carols stall to a dirge just because the congregation joins in? The only weakness of the concert was the occasional instrumental accompaniment, which didn’t seem on a par with the vocal excellence.
I have sung in enough choirs to recognize the creases of angst in singers’ brows, and when their tightness of breath translates into a tightness of my gut, I find myself holding my own breath, hoping they can keep it together. The best part about this concert for me was that the National Lutheran Choir’s confidence and precision allowed me to relax and enjoy the evening thoroughly. It occurred to me when I left that I had just experienced not only great beauty but also the sense of peace that flows from such beauty.