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Commonwealth plaza was swarming with large groups of teens and young adults, and many appeared wide eyed at possibly their first visit to the Kimmel Center.  The source of all these groups became clear as we waited patiently for the musicians to arrive on stage.  A man with a binder in the third row stood up, faced the audience and raised his arms.  A hush instantly fell upon Verizon Hall.  He had no connection with Eric Whitacre or his Singers, but the audience, full of self proclaimed choir geeks, was adept at following the guidance of a conductor; and so they did.  Laughter soon followed as we realized the temporary power of one audience member with some spunk and a sense of humor.  

The choir of 28 singers took the stage followed by a roar from the audience as Eric Whitacre came into view.  According to an article in NPR in 2010, over 42 million people sing in choirs in the USA, and that was in the early days of the Eric Whitacre phenomenon.  His rock star persona has fanned the flames of singers, so that number must surely be higher today.  Inna Heasley wrote about his influence and conducted an interview with him prior to this premier concert in Philadelphia.  For more information, please read her article here and interview here.  It was clear before a note was sung that Eric Whitacre had, indeed, developed a devoted audience and they were eagerly anticipating an evening of choral music.  

One immediate challenge was the size of Verizon hall.  Twenty eight opera singers would have no trouble filling the room with sound, but the beauty of this choir was its very soft tones and lack of vibrato.  The presenters wisely restricted ticket sales to only the orchestra and first tier, which brought the audience closer to the stage and left the hall with a surprisingly lively acoustic.  

The program was a mixture of original music composed by Eric Whitacre and a wide selection of other pieces ranging from Bach to Depeche Mode.  The singers were pitch perfect.  In fact, as far as I could detect, they never relied on external tuning at all.  A few singers that must have the rare gift of absolute pitch set the starting pitches prior to each piece. Their blending and dynamic control were masterful as well.  Whitacre conducted expressively and almost appeared to paint the music with his arms.  

The works that stood out for me were:

Whitacre: Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine - This work had interesting text and vocal techniques that sometimes literally demonstrated the words through music.

Whitacre: Animal Crackers - Special vocal effects were used again, but this time for humor.  Whitacre introduced this collection of short pieces with self deprecating humor which helped set the tone, and the audience enjoyed a rare treat of humor in music.

Edwin London, Bach: Come sweet death - This "re-composition" by London began with the original "Come sweet death" by Bach, then repeated it in super slow motion with smeared timing.  Whitacre described it as paint splotches spread out in long lines, and that's exactly as it appeared.  It was a fascinating work that was better understood through Whitacre's description and the matching arm movements by the choir.  It drew an enthusiastic response from the expert audience.

The Whitacre Singers completed the concert with a series of encores, each one greatly appreciated by an audience that appeared like it could go for a couple more hours.  Alas, the Whitacre could not even remain after the concert to sign CDs as they still needed to get to New York City that night.  Maybe next time he'll linger a little longer in Philadelphia.

Disclaimer: This article is an observation from the viewpoint of a "regular member" of the audience, not a critical review.

5 years ago | Read Full Story
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