May 18, 2005

A stirring Warwick "Memorial"

By James F. Cotter

For the Times Herald-Record

    Sunday evening at the Warwick Reformed Church, the Warwick Valley Chorale presented a program titled "Memorial" in anticipation of Memorial Day.  The concert was dedicated to veterans and to the victims of 9/11 for whom a special composition had been written.  The presentation had been given previously on Friday night at the Monroe United Methodist Church.

    Gail Johnson was the pianist as Stanley Curtis conducted 58 singers and 21 musicians in the orchestra.  The voices were strong and sonorous with modulated tonal phrasing and accurate intonation.  The instruments added color, excitement and resonance to the singing, although at climactic moments they tended to get the better of the chorus.  However, the exchanges and timing between the two ensembles proved to be well-coordinated by Curtis, who highlighted the dramatic passages with pauses and emphatic rises and falls.

    "Testament of Freedom" by Randall Thompson was written in 1943 in the midst of World War II.  The words of Thomas Jefferson from four of his works are set to music with a common opening and closing refrain:  "The God who gave us life gave us liberty."  It's a glorious anthem that sets the tone for what follows, a chant and recitative that recalls the struggle for independence.  Solemn measures mark the phrase "We have counted the cost," while "Our cause is just" merits an exclamatory crescendo.  A drum march evokes the sounds of battle in "We fight not for glory," and plaintive violins announce the prayerful lines "I shall not die without hope."  Patriotism finds its true notes in the inspiring piece.

    After intermission, Rene Clausen's "Memorial" (2003) was presented as a reflection on the Twin Towers tragedy.  Beginning with "September Morning," violins, harp and the brass paint a peaceful dawn, all too quickly disrupted by "The Attack" with droning engines and explosive drumbeats.  "Prayers," written by Roy Hammerling, form the immediate aftermath with tenor James Blanton tenderly calling on "Gracious and loving God" in a series of pleas for mercy.  Most surprising is a petition for the enemy: "We condemn them to your mercy, O God."

    The verb "condemn" is not a misprint for "commend" but a submission to leave the final judgment in divine hands.

    The work concludes with a set of petitions in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Latin to God, who is invoked as "Adonai" in voices that reach angelic heights and depths of human anguish.  Soprano Linda Norton led the female voices in an appeal to God to "shine your light upon us."  This oratorio offers a moving tribute to the memory of those who perished on that fateful day.

    Curtis led the chorus in an appropriate encore, "The Irish Blessing" by Joyce Eilers Bacek.