(March 25, 2009) We heard the debut performance of the Robert Shewan Chorale as part of a Christmas concert last December; on Sunday evening the new group gave its first full concert to a large, appreciative audience in the old sanctuary at Bethel Full Gospel Church. We were not disappointed.
The program was mostly twentieth-century sacred music, and the performers were a nicely-balanced chorus of about 50 voices, accompanied from time to time by wind instruments. Most of the singers had been students of the conductor at Roberts Wesleyan College during the 1970s and 1980s, though a few younger faces were also seen.
The concert began with a setting of Psalm 100 by Heinrich Schütz for double chorus. Antiphonal singing was always a trademark of the Roberts Wesleyan Chorale under the direction of Dr. Shewan, and here the stairs to the balconies on each side came in useful. It continued with a decidedly unsentimental “But Thanks Be to God,” which till now we don’t remember ever hearing outside its context in Handel’s Messiah.
But it was with two contrasting pieces by the American composer Randall Thompson, “Alleluia” and “God Has Gone Up With a Shout,” that the concert hit its stride. This is wonderfully spirited music for which Dr. Shewan has a strong affinity. Thompson’s well-known “Alleluia” was of course performed a cappella, but the second of these pieces was accompanied by an eight-piece brass ensemble which, doubtless to the surprise of some, did not drown out the chorus. But then no choir led by Dr. Shewan has ever lacked for sound output.
The second part of the program included three choral compositions by Dr. Robert Shewan’s son Stephen Shewan. The title of the first of these, “Awake My Soul/Morning Has Broken,” made us stiffen up in our pew and furrow our brows. Sadly, writers of church choir music for the publishing houses this days seem to think that a new anthem must be a medley with a familiar tune like “Ode to Joy” or “Pachelbel’s Canon.” The J. W. Pepper website, for instance, advertises the following anthems: “Simple Gifts/Pachelbel’s Canon,” “Amazing Grace/Pachelbel’s Canon,” “The First Noel/Pachelbel’s Canon,” and “Pachelbel’s Canon of Peace” (a medley of the infamous Canon with “Dona Nobis Pacem”). And that was just the first page we ran across.
Could Stephen Shewan, whom we believed to be a highly regarded composer, been so overcome by desire for commercial sales as to have fallen into this trap? A medley with “Morning Has Broken”? We could hardly believe it of him. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded. Yes, it includes the Cat Stevens tune — but “Awake My Soul/Morning Has Broken” is a gloriously sophisticated composition, and any suspicion that the composer was reaching for popular success was belied by his decision to write an accompaniment for the unusual (though in this case highly successful) combination of four woodwinds and a trumpet. We ascertained after the concert that this anthem can been heard on the Albany Records recording “Parables of God and Man: Music of Stephen Shewan, Vol. 2,” which is available on Amazon.
We were especially pleased with the final Shewan piece on the program, an anthem entitled “Come, Let Us Sing for Joy,” based on Psalm 95. For this intricate piece, which features achingly beautiful dissonances in the choir parts, Stephan Shewan wrote an accompaniment for piano (played on this occasion by the composer himself) and solo trumpet (played here by his brother Paul Shewan, who was banished to the balcony above the choir). The motifs with which this piece was skillfully constructed linger long with the hearer.
Was the old sanctuary at Bethel really large enough for a choir that can generate as much volume as this choir? As the sound rattled in our ears at times during the concert, we wondered. All things considered, though, we thought the venue was sufficient. This is not an ideal location for a choir concert; there’s no place for the piano but in the middle of the platform, so that choir members must fill in behind. But the acoustics are alive and no dynamic or subtlety is lost.
The Bible records that in the last years of Moses, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Deuteronomy 34:7. Although Robert Shewan is still at least five decades short of Moses’ 130 years, neither his eye nor his natural force nor the baton in his hand show any evident signs of decline.