Reflections on the National Conference Of Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (CFAMC), October 6-8, 2016, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi, Part IV

Friday, October 7, 2016, early afternoon Choral Concert

The campus of Mississippi College, a Baptist institution dating back to 1826, makes me gulp as I, now a Californian, step into history I can only imagine back at home. Shots from the Civil War once rang out on this campus, not far away from the magnificent and historic Provine Chapel, first built in 1860. Its main sanctuary is on the second level, a hefty climb of stairs up from ground level. The acoustics are stellar for our Choral Concert, featuring the fine Mississippi College Singers, directed by Mark Nabholz, performing works and arrangements by five CFAMC members.

Adam Sovkoplas’ The End and the Beginning is a fitting tribute to the Lexington Chamber Chorale’s 25th anniversary, for which it was commissioned. The oboe obbligato is hauntingly beautiful, particularly in the evocative introduction that hints of the Middle East. While the triumphal and majestic ending of this choral setting of Lowry Nelson’s Desert Ride poem properly celebrates this milestone of the Lexington Chamber Chorale, it also observes the dark and challenging times as it progresses from its G minor opening through several thrilling modulations, all exquisitely voiced for singing.

To celebrate the retirement of Bonnie Blu Williams from the music education program at Mississippi College, Benjamin Williams (no relation) wrote the touching To my dear friend, which is a fine setting of 3 John. Cast mostly in D Major or the Mixolydian mode (major with the lowered 7th scale degree), the work incorporates the schoolyard chant “sol-mi-la-sol-mi” that is such a mainstay of music education and obviously part of this professor’s curriculum. Of note are the many different textures Ben Williams explores in this music, from simple melody to four-part Renaissance-like imitation.

Emily G. Custer’s arrangement of the familiar My Jesus, I Love Thee reawakens this classic hymn of the church by incorporating two Scriptures read aloud, along with text painting and richly reimagined harmonies inspired by Morton Lauridsen, many originating with modal interchange between the tonality of Db Major and its parallel key of Db minor. The perfect authentic cadence, such a hallmark of the original hymn, is denied by Custer practically until the end in a celebratory and bright cadence in Eb Major.

Matthew Ramage’s Psalm 116 is a setting of the seventh through the ninth verses of this renowned psalm that deals so forthrightly about death and the comfort God brings the pilgrim as He returns him to the land of the living. Ramage reflects this tension so exquisitely in beginning in the bright key of C Major, but entering the dramatically dark key of Bb minor and a chant-like section to depict the darkness of death. Here Ramage invokes the terror of death by frequent uses of the Neapolitan chord (a major triad based on the lowered second degree of the minor scale). Again, we hear smooth, skillfully voiced and singable modulations to remote keys that beautifully capture the passion of this eloquent Psalm.

From past conferences and Listening Pages posted by Bill Vollinger, most of us in CFAMC anticipate that new music by Allan Brings will be quite dissonant and tonally challenging, and I feared for the choir wondering if they would be up to the challenge! But these two selections from A Herrick Suite: “I Sing of Brooks” and “Corinna’s Going a Maying” are quite diatonic, remaining steadfastly in their chosen keys of D Major and G Major, respectively. Brings has distilled his distinct musical voice not just for choir but for young choirs. The result is a delightfully distinctive English flavor that matches well the lyrics by English poet Robert Herrick.

In this program we were treated to choral music that took us in several different directions and offered just the right amount of challenge and departure from traditional church anthems. The Mississippi College Singers provided faithful and sure-footed readings of all of the works. It is to be hoped that some of these pieces will find their way to publication and dissemination around the choral world.