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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Music
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UW Choral Union sets sail on Ralph Vaughan Williams' vast 'Sea Symphony'
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UW Music School choral director Beverly Taylor
UW Music School choral director Beverly Taylor

Beverly Taylor replaced the beloved Robert Fountain as the UW Music School's choral director in 1995. One of her first concerts with the Choral Union was a brave presentation of "A Sea Symphony" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, together with the composer's "Five Variants on 'Dives and Lazarus'" for string orchestra. I attended that, and was mightily impressed by the performance and its enterprise.

Over a dozen years later, on May 4, Taylor led the Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra again in the same program, pegged to honor this year as the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. The concert was given not in Mills Hall on the UW campus, as before, but in the Overture Center's Capitol Theater.

A vast work, lasting a little over an hour, the "Sea Symphony" was finished in 1909. It looks back and forward simultaneously. It is cast in what amounts to the traditional symphonic four movements, with a slow movement and a scherzo in the middle. But is a true choral work with orchestra in the grand English tradition, and especially under the influence of Elgar. It calls for a large choir throughout, as occasionally spelled by one or both of the soloists (baritone and soprano). Even while making deliberately splashy effects, the composer displayed already his devotion to the spirit of English folksong.

Vaughan Williams followed this work with the purely orchestral "A London Symphony." Those two works became retrospectively his First and Second Symphonies only when he thereafter designated their successor as his No. 3.

Most unusual, though, is the fact that the "Sea Symphony"'s texts come entirely from the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose writings fascinated British composers long before American counterparts seriously turned to them. Vaughan Williams particularly responded to Whitman's "barbaric yawp," using the poet's verses in other important compositions beside this one.

Since Whitman's poetry drew from Vaughan Williams so many glorious moments of surging power or subtle beauty, it is a pity that the words did not come through better. Part of this is the composer's fault, some passages being quite overwhelming in sonority, burying the words in the grand sound. And the Choral Union can indeed make a grandly massive sound. But there were other reasons. One was that Taylor did not quite restrain the large orchestra as carefully as she might have in the larger-scaled passages, so the chorus was sometimes overpowered. But there is the perennial topographical problem of having to place the chorus at the back of the stage, hindering full projection of what diction can be mustered.

Moreover, the audience was hardly helped by that amazing but recurrent inanity of house managements who hand out the printed text in the programs but make the house lights so dim that reading it is impossible. (Rendered thus absurd was the admonition in the program that a text page should be turned quietly during the concert! Doesn't anybody think about these things?)

All that said, the performance was a wonderful experience in purely sonic terms. More than ever, Taylor showed her love for this great score, and her confident command of it. The members of the Choral Union sang with admirable discipline, while the young orchestra players (a few rough string moments aside) supported at almost professional competence. Soprano Janet Brown, a faculty member at Syracuse University, sang her parts with a strong sweetness of tone, while familiar UW faculty singer Paul Rowe made his predictably manly and appealing contributions.

The concert opened with the lovely treatment Vaughan Williams made of five different versions he had traced of the touching folksong that reflects on the Gospel parable of the rich man and the beggar. The orchestra's strings (plus two harps) may not offer the ultimate in sheen, but they nevertheless managed to make this beautiful music glow appropriately.

It was particularly heartwarming that a concert like this was removed from the UW campus -- whose events seem so often to be treated as the marginal activities of a closed world -- and projected out into a community venue for wider awareness and enjoyment. After all, the Choral Union itself is a town-and-gown outfit.

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