University Singers of the University of St. Thomas (RC) in downtown Houston,
Texas, is an auditioned ensemble of undergraduate and graduate students, mostly
music majors. Their principal performance space is the modernist Chapel of St.
Basil, one of the last designs of architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005). The
booklet lists 35 singers, but some are designated “friends of UST music” and
others as “UST vocal alumni”. Their director is Brady Knapp, a member of the
university faculty and also director of music at Palmer Memorial Episcopal
Church in Houston. As heard here, the ensemble produces a very good mixed choir
sound of young voices in a friendly acoustic. The program slightly favors the
women’s voices – there are several selections without tenors or basses. In
addition to choral music, there are several instrumental pieces: organ works by
Paul Creston, Seth Bingham, and Raymond H. Haan plus the first recording of Canzona for Oboe and Organ by David
Ashley White performed by Yuri McCoy with oboist Grace Tice.
A large part of the program consists
of conservative works by living composers such as Antony Baldwin (b. 1957),
Richard Allain (b. 1965), Eleanor Daley (b. 1955), and Robert Parker (b. 1960).
Most are gentle There are pieces in what I call the “Anglican tug-on-the-heartstrings”
The performances are above serious
technical reproach, with exemplary choral blend and discipline.
When you listen to 200-300 new recordings
of choral music every year, 90 percent of them sacred programs, you figure
you’ve heard enough of these things to know what to expect from a given
composer, choir, conductor, and record label. And
then, something like this surprising new release by a choir you’ve never heard
of comes along–The University Singers from the University of St. Thomas,
Houston, Texas–and you are amazed anew, and for the next hour engulfed in an
unexpectedly pleasing, moving experience.
Don’t be concerned about the tinkling
bells that open the program–this kind of bell sound on recordings loses its
charm after about 12 seconds–and that’s exactly how long it takes for the
chorus to enter, then the organ, and from there you’re treated to a superbly
programmed, expertly sung concert highlighted by many works that will not be
well known but that deserve attention from church and concert choirs
everywhere. Among these are two pieces centered on the same text: a prayer of
St. Richard of Chichester, by Antony Baldwin (b. 1957) and Richard Allain (b.
1965); a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Philip Moore (b. 1943); David Ashley
White’s Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake; and the brief yet captivating Easter
Carillon by W. Leonard Beck, with its infectious organ accompaniment and
festive choral exclamations.
O sacrum convivium by Robert Parker (b.
1960) and Ave Maria by Colin Mawby (b. 1936) lend a decidedly “French”
character to two familiar texts, while Mawby’s God be in my head is solidly,
reverentially “English cathedral”-inspired; Donald Pearson’s A Song to the Lamb
is Vaughan Williams-ish sparkling and joyous. Several organ pieces are
interspersed throughout the program–and all are welcome and engaging,
effectively highlighting the world-class Schoenstein & Co. instrument
installed at the St. Basil Chapel (an extraordinary space designed by famed
architect Philip Johnson)–played with impressive imagination and skill by Yuri
McCoy (I was especially moved by Raymond H. Haan’s Voluntary on “Let us break
bread together”). There are also some works by the more familiar names
Palestrina, Saint-Saëns, and Dupré, and these are excellent–but I would strongly recommend this for all those other
pieces by those lesser-known composers–and for the outstanding choral singing
throughout. I would go out of my way to hear this choir, whatever they were
singing. If you’re a fan of choral music and of superior singing, do not miss