The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra and combined Choirs, conduced by Dr. Timothy Stalter, who is the director of choral activities at the University of Iowa, presented an annual concert on December 4, 2013 at 7:30pm in the Iowa Memorial Union. It was a grand and spectacular event for all everyone in Iowa City to enjoy. It brought audience members to different time periods as well as to enjoy the psalms of the Old Testament. The program included pieces composed by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, which produced a performance that highlighted the development of choral and orchestral psalm settings, from the Classical period to twentieth century.
The first piece to open the concert was Symphony of Psalms (1930; revised 1948), composed by Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky composed this piece for the fifteenth anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Originally he considered composing a symphony, however, he did not want it to follow the traditional from. The piece lacks violins, violas and clarinets, yet features two added pianos to create a different sounding type of work that is more serious and somber. This lack of high strings and clarinets reflected the composer’s philosophy that music should be objective, and not overly emotional. The piece started with a solemn opening with dissonance that strengthens the darkness that the harmony creates, and the choir did an excellent job in capturing the contrast between spirituality and intensity. In addition, what impressed me the most was the choir’s very clear and crisp diction. Here is the text for this piece:
After the exciting conclusion of the first piece, the second piece, Vesperase solennes de confessore by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed. Both the Orchestra and Choir were able to quickly change gears to play in this completely different style. This piece included six movements and included solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). Voice majors at the University of Iowa performed all of the voice solos. Penelope Makeig sang soprano, Lisa Neher sang alto, James Judd sang tenor, and Sean Lynch sang bass. The vocal soloists’ pure timbres stood out from the choir, and the beautiful contrast between solo voices and choir made the piece even more special. Each movement of Vespers Psalms had a distinct character, which even included an archaic fugue in which Mozart manipulated the subject in a variety of ways in the fourth movement. In contrast, the fifth movement featured one of Mozart’s most memorable melodies, a serene solo line that floats over the orchestra and chorus. The melismatic solo soprano with the simple violin accompaniment was very heart warming, and Ms. Makeig did a fantastic job on her performance.
The concert concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Der.114. Psalm: “Da Israel aus Agypten zog.” This piece is a compact masterpiece, and I think it was a great piece to end the evening. The choir was very broad, homophonic, and full of majestic features. During the performance of this piece, lights were even changed from dim to bright. I wondered, was this a planned effect to go along with the music? But luckily, I had a short conversation with Dr. Stalter after the concert about the lights and he said, “I have no idea what happened [with the lights], I figured I have to just keep going.” Obviously then, the lights changing were not planned special effects like I had thought, but it still made me wonder… Why not try a different approach to popularize new music and to attract new audiences to these types of concert, maybe we could use the lighting or other theatrical special effects to strengthen the musical effects for new music. Why not give it a try?