Madison already has many choirs -- student ones, church ones, community ones -- so one would think it does not desperately need another. But the Madison Choral Project really is something new and different, as revealed in its inaugural concert at Luther Memorial Church on Saturday evening.
Organized and conducted by Dr. Albert Pinsonneault, a member of Edgewood College's music faculty, this is a professional, mixed-voice chamber choir, consisting of 16 carefully selected singers (four sopranos, four contraltos, three tenors, five basses). Its models (intentionally or otherwise) are such British groups as Harry Christophers' Sixteen and Peter Phillips's Tallis Scholars. Our country has few such counterparts who can work at the same level of carefully matched voices, beautiful blending, great precision and elegant sonority. This the Choral Project attempts to offer, and in doing so brings an important new dimension to Madison's rich musical life.
Pinsonneault seems to like thematic organization for his programming, and he chose the message of "Celestial Spring" for his first concert, which was divided into four sub-themes.
The opening set offered three works, respectively by Joseph Rheinberger, Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn (an arrangement from Elijah), all charged with 19th-century Romantic warmth. Thereafter the bulk of the selections came from the 20th century. That could have proven a trap, for too many composers of recent decades have treated choral voices as means for unidiomatic experimentation rather than opportunities for coherent interaction of parts. Fortunately Pinsonneault made very astute and gratifying choices. An outstanding example was a set with three "Songs of Farewell" by Charles Hubert Parry, an underrated late-Romantic English composer who showed wonderful care in setting 16th-century poems.
Likewise able masters of choral sound were Jussi Chydenius, F. Melius Christiansen (fabled director at St. Olaf College, where Pinsonneault earned his MB), Leland B. Sattern, Dominick Argento, Nils Lindberg and particularly (to my taste) Matthew Harris. Each of these composers dealt, in their individual ways, quite sensitively with their well-chosen texts. Quite striking were two very different pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, each in a subtle style different from what we would expect from this composer. (But, as an encore, we heard another of his compositions, more firmly rooted in his love for English folksongs.)
Luther Memorial Church, with its expansive and reverberant acoustics, added fullness to the choral sounds, but at the price of blurring, especially of diction. The group had clearly worked hard on this matter but still need to assess their performing venues carefully and make an extra effort to adjust to them, above all when singing in English.
Beyond that, I hope Pinsonneault will extend his repertoire further back chronologically, especially into the enormous and glorious literature of Renaissance choral music, for which he and his group are ideally suited, and of which we can never hear enough.
Generally, though, the program was a bundle of pure bliss, unaccompanied choral sound at its most beautiful. No other choir in Madison can quite match it. It has made a compelling start, and deserves support as it develops. A second concert, a Christmas program, is planned for December.