John Frayne: UI groups join forces for fantastic performance

John Frayne: UI groups join forces for fantastic performance

Earlier this month, I attended a concert of the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra in which this ensemble joined forces with the UI chamber singers and the UI Oratorio Society in the first half of the program, and these choruses were then joined by the UI Women's Glee Club and the Varsity Men's Glee Club in the second half.

The conductor was Andrew Megill, a choral director of wide and distinguished experience who is completing his first year here as director of choral ensembles.

In his honor, the composer Lewis Spratlan created a choral work, "Of War," and this was its world premiere performance. Spratlan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2000 for his opera "Life is a Dream." Spratlan's work attempts to show the destructive futility of war, and its four parts are entitled "Milk Duds" ("Exxon has my back"), "Manifest Destiny," "Vigil Strange" and "Pink Mist" ("Religion in the Desert").

Most of the texts were by the composer and Constance Congdon, and one part, "Vigil Strange," is from Walt Whitman's collection of war poems, "Drum Taps," in his classic work "Leaves of Grass."

Spratlan's work clearly shows his prowess in molding large choral and orchestral forces to evoke strong emotions. He knows how to combine mighty choral-orchestral climaxes with softer a cappella chanting. In the "Manifest Destiny" section, the ironies of the text were underlined by a mock-heroic military march.

The texts chosen and created for this work involve multiple levels of post-modern political perspectives. Is the valor of the Indian warrior in "Manifest Destiny" to be admired or deplored? In the final section, in what sense are we saying goodbye to a litany of famous battles: Normandy, Baghdad, etc.? Is a quotation from the Bagavad Gita, associated with the atom bomb, a sign of apocalyptic disaster or the harbinger of a new era? It seems to me that this work tries to say too many things to reflect too many perspectives.

In the organization of the concert, the opening "Dies Irae" section of Wolfgang Mozart's unfinished "Requiem" is recruited as an anti-war statement, and the unfinished "Lacrimosa" section was immediately followed by the Spratlan work. This produced a jarring effect, which was repeated by the performing of the "Dona Nobis Pacem" ("Grant Us Peace") section of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Mass in B Minor" right after the end of the Spatlan work.

Magill is evidently a superb conductor of choral forces, and the chamber singers and the Oratorio Society did splendid work throughout with the differing styles of these three composers.

The solo quartet in the Mozart "Requiem" section expressed clearly the power of the Latin text. The quartet singers were Mileeyae Kwon, Jennifer E. Wiggins, Michael Patterson and Ricardo Sepulveda.

In Spratlan's work, the solo bass was Daniel Spratlan, who aroused empathy in the Walt Whitman section. Daniel Spratlan, the composer's son, is a choral conductor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

At the end of the first part, composer Spratlan was called to the stage by Megill to acknowledge the strong applause.

After the intermission, the choral forces were augmented by the UI Glee clubs for a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 1936 cantata "Dona Nobis Pacem," another anti-war which uses Whitman poetry. To be sure, this Vaughan Williams work has admirable qualities, but for me, they would be more enjoyable were I not already moved by the Spratlan work.

I have an allergy to the prolixites of Whitman's verse, but that said, Vaughan Williams had a stroke of genius in having a solo soprano voice intoning the words "Dona Nobis Pacem" at crucial moments in the score. Rebecca Wilson, in the choral balcony, sang these words with touching pathos, and baritone David Newman sang his solo lines with force and vigor. This work swells to a mighty climax and then softly ends with the soprano repeating "Dona Nobis Pacem."

The combined choruses reached a total of 222 singers, and they all achieved magnificent effects. The 71 members of the UI Symphony reflected the excellent training of their conductor Donald Schleicher.

During the tumultuous applause at the concert's end, Dr. Megill was joined by the Glee Club directors Andrea Solya and Barrington Coleman in taking part with the soloists, choristers and instrumentalists in the appreciation for the fine work achieved by UI School of Music teachers and students.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM, and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. He can be reached at

Topics (1):Music