Classical music audiences are so oriented to hearing works that are decades, if not centuries old, it can be easy to forget the thrill of hearing something brand new.
For its 50th anniversary, Lexington Singers gave its artists and audience that thrill, commissioning a new masterwork from internationally acclaimed choral composer René Clausen, plus new pieces from local composers Jay Flippin and Johnie Dean.
After an egregiously long curtain speech, the concert opened with Clausen's Celebration Canticles. The composer responded to the Singers' commission by giving the group an eight-movement meditation on life. Like most lives, there was a lot to it, in its musical and lyrical content. Clausen utilized texts by authors such as Dylan Thomas and Kentucky's own Wendell Berry, and most imaginable resources for a choral-orchestral work, including a children's choir and soprano soloist Angelique Clay.
For a choral commission, Celebration Canticles notably gave the orchestra numerous chances to shine, particularly the winds — Merrilee Elliott, flute; Nancy Clauter, oboe; Scott Wright, clarinet; Peter Simpson, bassoon and David Elliott, horn — who highlighted the sixth movement; and harpist Elaine Cook, whose strings were a constant, shimmering presence.
But this was a choral work from one of the world's top composers, and it challenged the singers from the beginning, with angular, tricky rhythms. Often, Canticles was striking in its loveliness, particularly the women's chorus in the second movement and the children's choir in the third, a setting of the Native American prayer Now Talking God. These were some of the moments Clausen's skill composing for voice showed best, the light voices floating on the winds.
The stiffest challenge was for the men in a setting of Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night that required the singers to independently sing a phrase, come together on the word rage and culminate in swelling exclamation.
That they pulled it off, under Jefferson Johnson's direction, was a testament that, over 50 years, the group has developed into a chorus with every right to ask a composer of Clausen's caliber to write for it. And Celebration Canticles should be heard again, in its entirety or portions. The finale, How Wonderful Are the Works of Your Hand, could easily become a church service and choral concert standard. So could Dean's Benediction of Peace (Dona nobis pacem) a contemporary setting of the Latin prayer, which closed an exciting evening of discovery.