University of South Dakota Chamber Singers: Let Me Fly
Navona Records

Under the direction of conductor Dr. David Holdhusen, the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers sounds more like a long-established professional choir than a group of undergraduate and graduate students chosen through audition from the entire university body; given the evidence presented on Let Me Fly, the collective must clearly be one of the things of which USD is most proud. Though the ensemble's repertoire includes music from different periods, the Renaissance among them, the sixty-nine-minute recording, whose eighteen primarily a cappella songs were recorded at three sessions between 2014 and 2016, celebrates American Choral Music by coupling spirited performances of traditional folk songs and spirituals with a handful of contemporary pieces.

One of the challenges for Holdhusen in shaping the group's sound has to do with achieving clarity in the vocal sound without losing the exhilarating energy that's so fundamental to spirituals and gospel. But as the joyous title track, uplifting “Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” and soulful call-and-response of “My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord” illustrate, it's a challenge he and the ensemble meet, given the conviction with which the singers execute the pieces whilst at the same time being careful to not let their performances become too raw or undisciplined.

In one of three pieces by Jonny Priano (b. 1985) on the album, the familiar text “Psalm 23” is given a hauntingly lyrical treatment that shows the singers can be as effective at a hushed level as at a jubilant roar, even if the psalm's last word, “forever,” achieves a powerful impact when uttered over and over. Haunting, too, is “I Am Not Yours” by Z. Randall Stroope (b. 1953), which the ensemble delivers at the level of a murmur. In addition to being one of the recording's most wistful settings, “Someplace” by Jocelyn Hagen (b. 1980) stands out for accompanying the singers' yearning expressions with vocal percussion effects similar to beatboxing.

As satisfying as the new compositions are, it's the traditional works that constitute the collection's core. The arrangement Moses Hogan gives “Elijah Rock” is so bold and refreshing it allows us to hear the song anew, while Norman Luboff's understated arrangement of “Dixie” similarly breathes new life into familiar material. In addition, the reserved reading given “Shenandoah” can't squelch its stirring quality, especially when the female singers' voices soar so affectingly, whereas the boisterous medley “Country Dances” ends the recording playfully by melding together snippets of various folk tunes (“Yankee Doodle,” “Buffalo Gals,” etc.).

One of the recording's greatest satisfactions arises in witnessing the contrast between the female and male singers' voices, the former often ringing forth like a clarion call and the latter acting as an effective lower-register counterpart. A soloist occasionally steps forth from the group (three of them on “Look What Dey Doin' to Jesus”), but for the most part Let Me Fly emphasizes the forty-member ensemble in all its full-throated glory, and with eighteen performances on offer, the recording's abundant in vocal choir riches.

November 2016