It begins in the basses. A hushed, minor-key drum-beat of a sound, a rhythm repeated urgently; then the sopranos and altos create a familiar melody over it that builds to a fierce climax with a single soprano wailing a high-D battle cry before the triumphant final cadence.
It’s the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” sung in a driving Moses Hogan arrangement by the Northwest Repertory Singers, whose voices fill Mason United Methodist Church with a rich, powerful sound. It’s an example of what the church will be filled with Saturday, when three Tacoma choirs perform a triple-bill concert called “The Best of the Northwest.”
“Of course, the title ‘Best of the Northwest’ doesn’t at all imply that these three choirs are the best ones in this region,” said Paul Schultz, the NRS’ founding director. “But they are among the very best.”
Schultz has a national association who agrees with him. The other choirs in Saturday’s concert – the University of Puget Sound’s all-female Dorian Singers and the Pacific Lutheran University Chorale – have been selected out of dozens to sing at the annual convention of the American Choral Directors’ Association (Western division) in Seattle.
“It’s tricky to get in,” Schulz said. “You have to send three years’ worth of recordings, and they choose from all types of choirs: children’s, church, college, community.”
Combining three choirs with conference-worthy chops is one idea behind Schulz’s programming. Another is the NRS’ longtime commitment to collaboration. Their June concert features the Total Experience Gospel Choir. A third reason is simply that it’s good for choirs to hear each other sing.
“Choirs rarely have the opportunity to hear other choirs: They’re so focused on their own things, especially at universities,” Schulz said. “Many of these college singers are going to be educators one day. They’ve got to hear what top-notch groups can sound like.”
It also is great for audiences to hear top-notch groups, and this is what Schulz is aiming for Saturday. Each choir will sing a program individually before joining for Northwest composer Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on this Shining Night.”
The three choirs’ programs are as different as you could imagine. The 47-voice University Chorale, directed by Brian Galante and consisting mostly of PLU freshmen and sophomores, will sing a musical spectrum from Monteverdi to Verdi: from the 16th-century composer’s “Cantate Domino” through Mendelssohn and Heinrich von Herzogenberg to contemporary composers such as J.A.C. Redford and Rosaphanye Powell.
The Dorian Singers – a 36-voice audition-only female choir directed by Anne Lyman – broaden out to folk songs from Korea and Norway, plus Duruflé’s “Tota Pulchra Es,” American works and the “Witches’ Chorus” from Verdi’s opera “Macbeth.” They’re both programs that the college choirs will sing at the convention, and represent the best of what each group of singers can do.
The NRS offers challenging contemporary music. The Hogan arrangement of “Jericho” is sung without music, and requires intensely tight rhythmic unity and incredibly eyebrow-raising soprano notes. Another difficult piece is Carol Barnett’s setting of the famous Dorothy Parker poem “Song of Perfect Propriety,” in which “little ladies” break their social bounds and dream of becoming bloodthirsty pirates. Other challenging works are Barber’s romantic “Under the Willow Tree” and a “Tota Pulchra Es” by New York-based composer Ola Gjeilo.
“It’s a potpourri,” said Schulz, adding that for directors at the choral convention, the mixed selection is often a springboard for adding to their own choir’s repertoire.
Meanwhile, the audience gets to sit back and enjoy some of the region’s best singing – as do the singers themselves.
“There’s a kind of magic when you stand side to side and make music together (with another choir), even if it’s just for one song,” Schulz said.