The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music in the Mountains Chorus
Vivaldi's Gloria - April 12, 2015
by Winslow Rogers
What a lovely Sunday afternoon of mostly-sacred choral music this was. The comfortable 300-seat Grass Valley Peace Lutheran Church was packed to the gunwales, and the audience members thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
The take-aways from this concert were the successful debut of a "small" (thirty-voice) ensemble drawn from the eighty-voice Music in the Mountains Chorus, and a rousing performance of Antonio Vivaldi's Gloria by the full chorus. Like the rest of the 2015 Music in the Mountains season, the concert was dedicated to their founder and long-time music director Paul Perry, who died in February.
The small ensemble performed during the first half of the concert, and the Gloria took up most of the second half. Ryan Murray, MIM's outstanding resident conductor, directed with his youthful aplomb. The accompaniment was provided by distinguished organist Stephen Janzen.
(Click here to view the concert program in a new window.)
The concert opened with a vigorous ceremonial piece by American composer Z. Randall Stroope called "An Die Freude" ("Ode to Joy"). It's Stroope's take on the poem that Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony. Stroope has reinterpreted it in a harmonically rich and percussive twenty-first-century idiom. It was an ideal concert opener and showcased MIM's full-throated choral sound. Nancy McRay joined Janzen for the four-hand piano accompaniment.
Janzen then played a solo, the familiar "Toccata" from Widor's Organ Symphony Number 5. You would probably recognize it as a frequent church wedding recessional. Janzen showed the technique necessary to bring off this virtuoso number. Unfortunately, the foot-pedal bass notes sounded distorted and unpleasant to my ears. Either the electronic organ was not up to the task, or it was simply played too loudly. Low organ notes were blurry throughout the concert, but were less obtrusive later on when accompanying the singers.
The small ensemble began its part of the program with two beautiful a cappella numbers, one by Palestrina and the other by the twentieth-century composer Maurice Duruflé. As Murray explained to us, the two pieces were linked by Duruflé's interest in the music of Palestrina's time. The ensemble was assured in both pieces and sang with a well-balanced and beautiful tone, though I would have appreciated a greater dynamic range in these pieces.
Next, the small ensemble performed an extended work, Bach's Cantata 106, "Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit" ("God's time is the very best time"), a work I was unfamiliar with. It was a revelation to me, and the performance was truly memorable. Ryan Murray told us that it was written when Bach was only twenty-two, which makes it an even more remarkable work.
The ensemble was joined by soloists Liisa Davila (soprano), David Korn (countertenor), Matt Hidalgo (tenor), and Daniel Yoder (bass). They all had beautiful voices, and having Korn's strong countertenor voice on the alto part provided a different aural texture than what is typical in concerts today.
This is a funeral cantata that has a subdued minor atmosphere. However, Bach varies the texture as he plays the soloists, the chorus, and the accompaniment off against one another to create a kaleidoscope of colors. A couple of memorable moments: soprano Davila's naive and repeated cries to God ("ja komm, ja, ja"; "yes, come"); and a lovely quiet passage from the altos toward the end that drew spontaneous applause — breaking the rule that audiences keep quiet until the end of a work.
That was the end of the first half. Despite the fine music we had already heard, when the second half opened with the downbeat of the Vivaldi Gloria, sung by the full chorus, it felt as if the concert was just beginning. I wrote in my notebook, "now this is the real thing." The chorus loved this music and it showed. It was as if they had been singing it all their lives.
The Vivaldi Gloria may not be a profound work, but it is a joyous and uplifting one. There are a dozen pieces in this half-hour work, so each one is brief. All of Vivaldi's musical gifts that we know from his concertos are on display, applied to celebrating the glory of God. You can see the well-known text and translation of this Catholic hymn in the concert program.
I must observe at this point that the printed program was minimal. There were no program notes, and aside from the Vivaldi, there were no texts or translations. Considering the unfamiliar pieces in the concert — none of them in English — I would have appreciated more support in helping me get the most out of the concert. There were no artist bios. I discovered the bios for these performers by chance on the MIM website, but they didn't make it into the concert program itself. This is too bad.
In addition to the chorus, the Gloria calls for soprano and alto soloists. Soprano Davila and countertenor Korn sang a splendid duet in the "Laudamus te" section. There were several other solos for alto, and I welcomed the bright powerful sound of countertenor Korn.
The concert ended with Michael Haydn's brief "Laetatus Sum" ("I am rejoicing"), which seemed almost anticlimactic. It was a good encore piece, however, and gave the chorus another chance to shine. Thematically it brought the concert full circle, back to the spirit of the "Ode to Joy" that had opened the program. The audience responded warmly, and showed how much they had appreciated this afternoon of uplifting music.
Winslow Rogers is a retired university professor, administrator, and guest artist series producer living in Grass Valley. Full disclosure: Win sang briefly in the Music in the Mountains chorus a long time ago, has friends in the current group, and sings with a few of them in another local chorus.