For all its prettiness, Woolsey is an acoustical nightmare of a concert hall, and unless you count the drunken hooting during the Halloween YSO show, no sound ever manages to fill up all that cavernous space.
The upcoming joint concert of the Yale Glee Club, Yale Camerata and Yale Schola Cantorum may be the one exception to this general rule. When all three choirs take the stage together for the grand finale and belt out the opening notes to Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” to the accompaniment of an orchestra, the ensuing wall of sound knocks you to the back of your seat.
The occasion for this joint venture is a celebration of a living legend, “the dean of British choral music,” Sir David Willcocks. Born in 1919, he became an organist, then a conductor and eventually the director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, and musical director of the world’s premiere amateur choir, the Bach Choir.
Willcocks’s career has earned him a veritable menagerie of awards, from a host of honorary degrees to his knighthood, which he received in 1977 in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Yale intends to add yet another title to the list on Sunday by awarding Willcocks the Sanford Medal, the School of Music’s most prestigious award.
Regardless of how you may feel about choral music or Handel, from the moment the choir begins until your ears cease ringing a few seconds after the singing stops, one cannot help but listen in mute fascination to the song that has been played at every British coronation ceremony since 1727. It’s enough to make the most patriotic American wonder if things would have been better if we’d lost that little war 230 some years ago. At the very least, it is difficult not to go home whistling “God save the king.”
On Sunday, before joining together for “Zadok,” each of the three choirs will have the chance to perform its own pieces under Willcock’s baton. The Schola Cantorum will present Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” and Henry Purcell’s “Rejoice in the Lord Always”; the Camerata will sing Handel’s “Dixit Dominus”; and the Glee Club will perform Willcocks’s own “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” in addition to Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me,” which, according to Sir David, was a particular favorite of the late Queen Mother’s.
While “Zadok” may be the high point of the evening, other pieces are likewise worthy of praise.
The Glee Club acquits itself well in the “Magnificat,” and since Willcocks’ conducting style eschews a romantic, free-flowing approach in favor of rhythmic precision, the more bombastic passages are particularly excellent. The Camerata’s rendition of “Dixit Dominus” is also quite strong, and the soloists, despite lack of practice, are impressive, particularly soprano soloists Laura Chester and Mellissa Hughes MUS ’06, who blend beautifully in a duet, and alto soloist Ian Howell MUS ’06, who achieves admirable purity of tone during crescendos on his highest notes.
Slight problems persist throughout the program, some of them due to Woolsey Hall itself. Consonants, for example, are swallowed up by the space. In all the choirs, cutoffs need to be sharper than they are now, and despite Willcocks’s best efforts, there are still rhythmic irregularities among both singers and the orchestra.
In “Zadok,” which has so many people onstage singing at once, even the smallest rhythmic or pitch discrepancies can make entire passages sound muddy, and the quintessentially Handelian rhythmic “ha”s have a definite tendency toward inaccuracy, especially among the basses.
By Sunday, hopefully, continued rehearsal will have ironed out many of these difficulties. Even as it stands, this concert is well worth seeing, especially given that it’s absolutely free. It is certainly a rare opportunity to see a legend in action, and to hear Woolsey Hall come alive with the sound of over 150 voices.