Concert Review

More Than 50 Grammy Winners Perform in the Same Room on the Same Night. Who Wins?

If you believe that record sales equal musical relevance, then you may think that classical music -- which accounted for less than 3 percent of all record sales in 2009 -- needs to be locked up in some museum archive along with the dinosaur bones.

However, if you listened to the two heavy-hitting choral groups inside Seattle's First Presbyterian Church on Friday night, there's a good chance that you'd up your classical-music CD collection, stat.

Billed as the "Grammy Night" concert, the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) presented the award-winning Phoenix Chorale and the Soweto Gospel Choir. The ACDA is choral music's Super Bowl, so both choirs made sure to bring their A-games to the gig.

The Phoenix Chorale, an Arizona-based choir that took home Grammy Awards in 2008 and 2009, took the stage first. Known for its stirring interpretations of contemporary works (many by composers who are still living), the 27-member ensemble opened up its hour-long, six-song set with Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae.

The piece -- a sonic ode to the MS Estonia disaster of 1994 in which 852 lives were lost in the Baltic Sea -- began with the women vocalists mimicking the sounds of blowing wind and radio static. After the singers bowed their heads in unison, soprano Kira Zeeman Rugen, standing alone on the church's balcony, sang a powerful, folk-inspired eulogy as an ode to all of the beings that perished in one of the deadliest maritime disasters of the 20th century. Rugen's solo was so dead-on that it was easy to imagine the capsized ship and the unused, water-filled life rafts floating in the unforgiving sea. Tenor Andrew DeValk, playing the part of the disaster announcer, knocked it out of the park, too, while conductor Charles Bruffy milked the moment by drawing out the periods of silence, which allowed the impossible heartbreak to sink in.

Another highlight of the Phoenix Chorale's set was Dark Night of the Soul. The piece, commissioned for the Phoenix Chorale and written by the group's composer-in-residence Ola Gjeilo, features text written by 16th-century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross that's turned into a dramatic and cinematic tour de force. The addition of pianist Gjeilo, who was forced to deal with the church's underwhelming ivories, and a string quintet - as well as a potent solo by soprano Alison Chaney and the slowly-building swell of the group's backing vocalists - drove the narrative to a beautiful and pensive conclusion.

Following a set change, the beautiful men and women from Soweto - an urban area of Johannesburg, South Africa - followed with a program of Negro spirituals, traditional gospel, and songs sung in South African churches. The choir, a globally recognized group that have backed folks such as John Legend, turned the cavernous, painted-in-sanitary-white room into a one-hour, world-music party.

Decked out in garb that looked as if Rainbow Brite threw up all over them (in a good way), the 27-person group and two percussionists ditched the subtleties and the silences and rejoiced in songs straight from its post-apartheid-torn country. The fervid stage production included choreographed dance moves, hand claps, and conductors by committee -- often times, the person who would help start the song disappeared into the throngs of pinks, purples, and greens.

Unlike the Phoenix Chorale's set, Soweto utilized amplification; at times, up to five vocalists wielded wireless microphones. Unfortunately, the rock-concert approach backfired on them, no thanks to the room's acoustics that favored lower volumes. As a result, the powerful gospel vocals turned muddy. However, the group's program did showcase some hushed songs that displayed Soweto's impressive vocal chops. One traditional African tune, arranged to sound like a contemporary American R&B ditty, featured a male soloist singing like a doo-wop version of Marvin Gaye.

To say the least, pairing the Chorale and Soweto back to back was odd because the two groups are so vastly different - think if Metallica followed Josh Groban and you may begin to get the idea. However, it was also a wise decision because the something-for-everybody bill showcased the wide-ranging eclecticism going on these days in choral music.

So, who wins? The Phoenix Chorale or Soweto Gospel Choir? Both, actually. As we see it, the ultimate winner was the 1,000 or so audience members in that room on a cold Pacific Northwest night, people that love pretty singing, and anyone with a pair of functional ears that can be moved by the beautiful art of the human voice.

Critic's Notebook:

Over The Weekend: Phoenix Chorale and Soweto Gospel Choir in Seattle.

Better Than: Most live music going on these days. For real.

Personal Bias: The Chorale's haunting whispering during Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae reminded me of a composition that I heart by Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra and the Choir of the NDR-Broadcast called "Hamburg '74," a classical-ish piece that traipses into what free jazz would sound like if it were invented during the Baroque period.

Random Detail: According to several Seattle locals, it hadn't really rained all winter until the day of the concert.

Further Listening/Watching:

*"Phoenix" by Phoenix Chorale composer-in-residence Ola Gjeilo (password: choirtap).

*Soweto Gospel Choir