On June 25, 2023, the New England Symphonic Ensemble performed a number of classic and modern spiritual works at Carnegie Hall. Presented by MidAmerica Productions, the concert featured a number of choruses from around the country, each lending their unique blend of voices to the program.
Opening the concert, and setting the tone for much of the afternoon, was Dan Forrest’s 2013 “Requiem For the Living.” This modern spiritual work rearranges the traditional requiem form to create a poignant ode for the alive. Conductor Warren Cook led the orchestra, joined by the following choirs: Artios of Greenville Chorale, Bangor Area High School Slate Chorale, Bob Jones Academy Concert Choir, Bob Jones University Choirs, Central Regional High School Choir of Bayville New Jersey, and Rivertree Singers.
Beginning with an almost-ethereal introduction by the strings, the piece had a delicacy in the instruments as well as the chorus, whose gentle voices added to the building texture like ripples on a pond that leave the surface unbroken. This led nicely into the second movement, which departed from the traditional “Dies Irae,” instead presenting a piece with scriptural text that related the struggle that comes with being alive, all the while keeping the utter gravity from the drums and the driving, dire energy of the brass. The third section, “Agnus Dei,” saw mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh take to the stage, joining the sweet and simple melody of the harp with her opening phrases. While this section kept her at a slightly-higher tessitura than usual, McIntosh navigated the score splendidly and with a prayerful ease that lent much to her rendition as she seemed to truly exist within the music. Following the expansive and majestic fourth section, “Sanctus,” which evoked the heavens as inspired through modern-day images from the Hubble Telescope, the work was concluded by “Lux Aeterna.” McIntosh returned here, delivering the repeating phrases, her voice laden with a beautiful, Baroque vibrato that brought out the most of the static lines. This section also featured tenor Morgan Mastrangelo, who displayed a fascinating and flexible tone of voice through his brief time onstage.
Next on the program was Johannes Brahms’ “Schicksalslied.” This work sets to music the poem from Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel “Hyperion,” creating an orchestral work that powerfully relates themes of fate and ultimately, redemption. Conducting this work was Jeffrey Cobb, with the participating choruses including Berrien Springs High School Concert Choir, Hardin Valley Academy Chamber Music Choir, Missouri State Choral Union, and Northwestern Michigan College Choirs. Cobb and the orchestra wonderfully laid out the prelude before the chorus entered with their initial theme. The rich harmony of their voices worked well through the reverent, almost sensual nature of the text, with phrases such as “Radiant, heavenly breezes touch you lightly like the player’s fingers on the holy strings.” Following a sharp run from the strings, the next section showcased not only struggle, but beauty found therein, as the orchestra eased in and out of their intensity, backed by phrases such as “Blindly from one hour to the next, like water from reef to reef breaking, cast for years into the unknown.” These elements made it all the more impactful for the final section, where the earlier material was poignantly reprised to bring the work to a clean and bracing finish.
This part of the concert also saw the performance of Jake Runestad’s 2019 composition “Into the Light,” which commemorates the Reformation by setting to music a number of texts from figures such as Gandhi, Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., creating a work that urges the listener to move beyond fear and towards love. Conducted by Erin Plisco, this work opened with great energy through the rejoicing chorus and light, chiming instrumentation, before settling into a reflective yet expansive musical atmosphere. The chorus and orchestra exuded a wealth of tones through not only denser moments, but ones of restraint and suspicion. This was seen in the third movement, “The Warm Fogs of Fear,” which featured a hushed pizzicato from the basses and percussive hints to evoke a palpable sense of tension and delicacy.
Bringing the concert to a sensational finish was Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass,” which sets the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass to the Gospel style found in African American churches. The work was composed in 1978, while Ray was a member of the National Office of Black Catholics, and has been performed in churches, schools, and concert halls nationwide. Conductor Maria A. Ellis led Blackburn College Choir, The Maria A. Ellis Festival Ensemble, Missouri Baptist University Chamber Singers, Rossview High School Choir, Saint Louis Community Gospel Choir, The Sheldon City of Music All-Star Chorus, and Que the Music Academy.
Soloists Jermaine Smith and Jennifer L. Kelley were poised to blow the roof off Carnegie Hall as they belted out the opening “Kyrie” with tremendous, reverential power before the chorus laid out the rest of the section backed by the driving chords and drumbeat. The ensuing “Gloria” had the audience clapping along as Kelley’s joyful phrases came together with the choral texture and brassy fanfare like an anthem of praise, aspects that continued and amplified into the “Credo,” until the statement of Christian identity became a full-on celebration of faith. After the more tranquil “Acclamation,” Smith returned for “Sanctus,” where the horns and drumbeat accompanied Biblical accounts of mercy and healing, delivered with crisp diction and operatic flair through the patter-like phrasing. The final section, “Agnus Dei,” saw Smith with a simple, lyrical invocation that developed into a soulful cry of vocal colors. The cascade of voices from the chorus brought everything back to a majestic and unified “Amen.”
Sunday’s concert had much to enjoy, and offered a manifold view into how spiritual music has developed over the years, delivered with infectious spirit. The New England Symphonic Ensemble will return to Carnegie Hall on July 8 for a concert of traditional, patriotic American music.