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Performance by Simon Carrington Chamber Singers was worth the wait

Timothy McDonald of Kansas City Star

Simon Carrington enjoys a long and storied relationship with the Kansas City region. When his professional ensemble, the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers, performs in Kansas City, choral music enthusiasts understandably sit up and take notice, especially since concerts are few and far between. Their performance Saturday afternoon at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral was well worth the wait.

Carrington was a founding member of the King’s Singers, an outstanding vocal ensemble he co-founded at Cambridge University. The King’s Singers performed more than 3,000 concerts and made numerous recordings while Carrington was a member. Several performances were in Kansas City.

He spent seven years as choral activities director at the University of Kansas before leaving to take on similar roles at the New England Conservatory and Yale University.

For Saturday’s concert, Carrington’s singers comprised 24 professional performers, many of whom were former students from KU. Some live locally, and others flew in from around the country for a mere three days of rehearsal.

The concert featured a program of British music and opened with Thomas Tallis’ “Gaude gloriosa Dei mater” (“Rejoice, Glorious Mother of God”), a challenging 17-minute Renaissance motet.

The work opened with a remarkably clear and well-blended tone. Beginning with an extended passage for a portion of the choir, a subsequent section when all voices entered was both powerful and dramatic.

The ensemble delivered Tallis’ sensuous and sumptuous vocal lines with elegant and convincing phrasing. Solo passages provided textural relief, although a countertenor soloist overpowered his colleagues. An extended “amen” provided a spirited and impressive ending.

Organist John Schaefer joined the ensemble for Purcell’s “Jehova, quam multi sunt” (“Jehovah, how many are mine enemies”). Tenor Matthew Swope exhibited a lyrical tone, but also displayed questionable intonation at the beginning of his solo. Bass Christopher Gilliam was marvelous, with strikingly rich tone and impeccable diction.

Once again the ensemble displayed a stunning choral sound. Carrington evoked contrasting timbres and styles, largely in response to the text.

Three part songs by Elgar followed. “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land” was extraordinary with its beautiful opening unison. Unfortunately a wonderful soft passage was desecrated by a passing airplane engine.

The final part song set the text “go, song of mine, to break the hardness of the heart of man.” It was hard to imagine any hard hearts in the audience with the ensemble’s passionate and moving reading of Elgar’s exquisite music.

A newly commissioned work by Melissa Dunphy followed: “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?” Dunphy’s music was exceptional, with supple lines effectively depicting the words of a veteran, and acerbic harmonies specifically setting the text “I’ve seen so much, so much blood and guts.”

Lighter selections ended the program, the most impressive being Carrington’s own arrangement of “O My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” As an encore, the ensemble sang “Go, Lovely Rose,” by local composer Geoff Wilcken.

The Simon Carrington Singers will repeat the program at 8 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence.

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