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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Birder Chorale’s All Saints concert moving

The 40th anniversary concert includes a pleasing premiere.
Dudley Birder portrait
Dudley Birder portrait

DE PERE, Wis., (WFRV) – At the end, Dudley Birder trotted a bit to get to the front of the stage to accept a standing ovation for another milestone concert for him.

It was the 40th anniversary All Saints Day Concert of his Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College – about 150 voices singing, 36 musicians playing and perhaps 350 choral music enthusiasts listening.

Friday evening in Walter Theatre of St. Norbert College included a premiere and moments that ranged from uplifting to deep reverence. Oh yes, and quiet admiration that Birder is still at it – conducting and encouraging others – at age 86.

The climax of an All Saints Day Concert is not music but, since 2004, the “Tribute to Loved Ones.” This year, Susan Elliott and Warren Elliott read the names of 60 people who have meaning to someone in the chorale and/or its supporters. Warren Elliott lighted a candle atop a metallic sacred design featuring a cross, and the audience grew silent and somber. Among the names was Mary Birder, Dudley Birder’s late wife.

While recognizing one’s mortality certainly factors into an All Saints Day Concert, this one seemed less heavy than others. Perhaps that was because celebration factored in.

For the occasion, the chorale commissioned a composition by Blake R. Henson of the St. Norbert faculty. The work is not about death but a love of singing. It’s about a desire to share the richness of the human voice. Using text by Adam M.L. Tice, Henson builds the sound of the chorale, section by section, line by line, with the music embracing the sentiment of the title, “God of Music, Guide Our Song.” In one portion, voices are reminiscent of chiming bells. At the climax, organ rises to a glorious sound and the chorus repeats an atmosphere of taking comfort in music. As the audience applauded, Birder proudly said, “That’s quite a piece, and it’s all ours.”

The concert overall was appealing (4½ stars out of 5), with aura weighing more than note-for-note perfection.

The chorale produced colorful sound, and soloists delivered time after time, whether in voice or on instrument.

Baritone Kent Paulsen was robust in Maurice Duruflé’s glowing “Requiem” and especially in Anton Rubenstein’s infectious “Seraphic Song.” The latter also featured wonderful sequences by violinist Yulia Smead.

Soprano Yi-Lan Niu and mezzo-soprano Linda Feldmann shone in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” including in the spirited “Laudamus Te.” The soloists, in concert gowns and wearing catchy necklaces and jewelry, dressed to impress and added an element of class. Vivaldi’s “Gloria” is fabulous from the get-go, with its rhythmic and lively rush.

Cellist Roza Borisova reached for the soul in John Rutter’s somber “Out of the Deep (Psalm 130).”

In turns, the chorale was comforting, angelic, fearful, joyous, gentle and forceful. In energetic passages, it is invigorating.

The finale for All Saints Day Concerts is Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ “For All the Saints,” a remembering when “hearts are brave again” but now “from their labors rest.”

Birder chose the Duruflé “Requiem” for the concert 40 years ago and again for Friday’s concert. The first was in the memory of a friend. This one included a daughter and a granddaughter as part of the chorale.

VENUE: The 725-seat Byron L. Walter Theatre features a proscenium stage (flat front). Its walls are textured concrete blocks laid in a wave pattern. The ceiling includes white acoustical clouds. Seat material and carpeting are the traditional theater red. The theater is located in Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts at St. Norbert College in De Pere. It is the larger of two theaters in the building, the core of which was built in 1955. In 1989, the Walter Theatre was renovated to improve the lobby and interior aesthetic, adding seating and improving the acoustics.

THE PERSON: Byron L. Walter (1877-1954) was a businessman. He operated Green Bay Hardware, Inc. until his retirement in 1953. Walter was co-founder of Paper Converting Machine Co. and for a time served as president. After his death, the Byron L. Walter Family Trust was established, and it made possible the theater. The trust continues to make widespread contributions to community projects and institutions.

REST OF SEASON:Holiday Pops,” Dec. 13-14; “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” March 23; “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” April 22; “America Sings,” May 9-10. Info: www.snc.edu/birderchorale.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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