Choral director Kennedy makes impressive debut at Festival Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Karen Kennedy, the new director of choral studies at the Frost School, made an impressive local debut Tuesday night at Festival Miami.

Festival Miami presented a fascinating choral doubleheader on Tuesday night. The University of Miami’s new director of choral studies Karen Kennedy — who is also the new artistic director of the Master Chorale of South Florida — made an impressive debut with a mini-program of choral rarities. Gusman Concert Hall was then transformed into a ballpark for excerpts from William Schuman’s rarely heard baseball opera The Mighty Casey.

The thirty-seven voice Frost Chorale was a highly responsive instrument for Kennedy’s meticulous dynamics and wide-ranging vocal gymnastics. Exhibiting an admirably minimalist podium technique, Kennedy drew extremes of volume, coloration and rhythm with the most economical gestures. Eschewing attention-grabbing flamboyance,  she achieved striking performances through authoritative leadership and musicianship.

Opening with student composer and choral member David Pegel’s setting of William Butler Yeats’ poem The Elemental Powers, Kennedy drew crisp rhythmic precision, clarity and a wide spectrum of dynamics from the most whispered tones to vociferous ensemble outbursts. Pegel contributed a rollicking recorder obbligato to his Celtic-tinged melodies.

The Appalachian folk song Bright Morning Star was pure Americana, an impressive vehicle for the purity and refinement of the women’s voices and Kennedy’s ability to command pitch-perfect intonation from the corporate ensemble. Turning from the light of morning to the darkness of evening, Imant Raminsh’s In the Night We Shall Go In was a contemporary portrait of the passage of winter into spring, utilizing a wide palette of vocal coloration.

Carl Orff’s Odi et amo (I hate and I love) was typically assertive and rhythmic in the manner of the composer’s Carmina Burana. The Frost singers responded to Kennedy’s scrupulous attention to the most minute details with fierce attacks, precise articulation and full throated exuberance. By contrast, the chorale’s mellifluous soft vocal hues embraced the lyrical strophes of David Childs’ Where Your Bare Foot Walks, a lovely meditation in the manner of John Rutter.

Lament for a Lost Child by Jere Hutcheson utilizes aleatoric choral techniques, the singers improvising random elements, unleashing a wall of vocal acrobatics, hand clapping and controlled chaos. A remarkable sense of tragedy and emotional power permeates this experimental piece. The chorale presented an impressive display of vocal effects that coalesced into an elegiac musical portrait. In Paradisum by Edwin Fissinger moved to the afterlife with a bland and slightly obvious display of celestial tones.

The Conversion of Saul by Z. Randall Stroope, based on the Biblical story of Paul of Tarsus, opens with rapid chant, gradually subdued into an air of mystery, symbolizing the protagonist’s journey from persecutor to Christian evangelist. Unorthodox in meter and harmonic structure, Stroope’s score is strikingly effective. The spiritual Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down proved a jazzy, foot-tapping finale in a swinging arrangement by Sean Ivory and Paul Caldwell. Kennedy’s singers brought vernacular sophistication and immediacy to this Americana classic rather than heavy handed classical pretentiousness.

Graduate student Jeffrey S. Stern took the podium for a synthesis of Schuman’s operatic and cantata versions of Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat. The members of the Frost Symphonic Choir sported baseball jerseys, playing fans of the Mudville team. Unlike the craggy sinew of his symphonic and chamber scores, Schuman’s setting of the Casey tale is distinctly populist. After the opera’s premiere in 1953, Schuman sought unsuccessfully to have the piece produced on Broadway and for good reason. From the Kurt Weil-like ballad of the Watchman to the Gilbert and Sullivan patter of the umpire, this score is martial and tuneful. The heartfelt simplicity of Kiss Me Not Goodbye, the ballad of Casey’s girlfriend, could well have been penned by Douglas Moore for one of his Americana operas. In the final chorus of disappointment and loss, the quintessential Schuman finally appears, at once austere eloquent.

Staged with flair by Dean Southern, the presentation featured such authentic touches as the pre-game singing of the National Anthem (complete with ballpark style organ accompaniment) and  golden-toned narration by Miami Marlins broadcaster Dave Van Horn. Among an excellent cast of singers from the Frost Opera Theater, standouts were Antoinne Barnes’ rich-voiced Watchman, Jeffrey Williams’ agitated Mudville Manager and Rebecca Henriques who showed a sweet lyric soprano as the girlfriend. Stern’s lively, idiomatic leadership and the choir’s vigorous ensemble work brought vitality to Schuman’s Americana tale.

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Wed Oct 12, 2011
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