The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music in the Mountains Chorus
Mozart Requiem - June 28, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Every concert that I attend in Grass Valley/Nevada City gives me a sense of profound community support for the arts. That was certainly true on this Sunday afternoon when I attended this concert featuring the Mozart Requiem, part of the Music in the Mountains' annual SummerFest concert series. SummerFest draws audience from elsewhere in Northern California, but in the minutes before people took their seats in the sold-out Amaral Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, it seemed that so many audience members knew each other, evidence to me that this was an event with strong local support. That much was also evident from the ads in the SummerFest program, and the many other indications of business and individual sponsorship.
More evidence as to how deeply this summer event is ingrained in the local culture has to do with the composition of the orchestra. For a start, some 70 instrumentalists are listed in the program, though they were not all included in this particular performance. Some 48 musicians are listed (with picture, educational background and current affiliation) as the "MIM Festival Orchestra Core," which I understand to mean that they are regular participants from year to year. Though most are from Northern California, quite a few are from other states. In addition, 19 people are listed as "Guest Musicians." Most interesting is the fact that 35 individuals or families are credited in the program as providing housing for orchestra members during the SummerFest.
(Click here to open selections from the SummerFest program in a new window.)
First on the afternoon's program was Haydn's Symphony No. 44 in E minor (the "Trauer" or "Mourning" symphony). Ryan Murray is now the Resident Conductor for Music in the Mountains, and this piece provided my first opportunity to observe him in action. In my limited experience of orchestral conductors, he seemed unusually expressive, drawing a full palette of emotion from the players, not simply through the broad, sweeping gestures of his arms and hands, but with his entire body. The passion that emanated from Murray came through in the crisp, expressive playing of the orchestra, which produced a rich sound despite what appeared to me to be the acoustic limitations of the Amaral Center. I imagine that most casual listeners, myself included, experience only a small part of the richness, depth, and subtlety of what a composer like Haydn has crafted into a piece of music like this. Still, helped by the expressive conducting of Murray and the inspired playing of these experienced orchestra members, I think all of us audience members, found much to understand and enjoy in this performance.
Music in the Mountains is a multi-faceted organization, and one dimension of its activity is the nurturing of young performers. At the conclusion of the Haydn we were introduced to Elise Savoy, the Lucy Becker Vocal Memorial Scholarship winner. She performed "Se il padre perdei" from Mozart's opera Idomeneo, demonstrating a lovely voice (and maybe a little bit of nerves). After she finished, the audience rewarded her with hearty applause, many standing and even cheering to encourage her return for a curtain call.
After intermission it was time for the Mozart Requiem. As the chorus and orchestra got into the first movement or Introitus, it seemed that Murray was directing it almost lovingly. But maybe that was my projection upon hearing this first movement of an old musical friend. As I listened to the allegro Kyrie eleison section, what struck me was the bright, energetic entrances from the various voice parts (especially the basses and altos who come in first). It seemed to me that they really caught and expressed the excitement of this movement. However, it was the sound and precision of the tenors that brought out the brilliance of this music for me. As a whole, the chorus squeezed every bit of passion out of the Kyrie — and then found more for the Dies irae. That section was strong but not “shouty,” and it seemed like the chorus felt and imitated the pulse of the timpani. Indeed, the chorus seemed especially animated, and as I sat there listening, I thought, “What singer doesn’t love this music?”
The bass entrance in Tuba mirum by John Ames was startling — for me, and I dare say for the whole audience. I can’t remember ever hearing a richer, stronger bass sound. He had enormous power in his low range, but I felt him pushing and often dominating the rest of the quartet. That and I felt that his intonation on those magnificent low notes was not always precise. I found tenor James Callon accurate and expressive, and not overpowering, as so many other tenors I’ve heard (especially when performing this piece). Similarly mezzo soprano Irene Roberts delivered a lovely tone, very much in balance with the other singers. That restraint was equally true of soprano Carrie Hennessey.
As an aside, I have to note what a remarkably versatile performer Hennessey is. Within just the past two months I’ve seen her as an outrageously costumed Witch in selections from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the annual concert of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus. I’ve seen her give an irrepressible, Mick Jagger-like performance of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at the 30th anniversary concert of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus in Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium, only to return to deliver an elegant rendition of the popular song, “If I Fall.” Her resume is loaded with acting, operatic and concert appearances. On this afternoon, she demonstrated a rich, cultured soprano voice with a serene demeanor appropriate for the Requiem. I think I’d go a little farther to add that it seemed to me that, actress that she is, she felt and really expressed the inherent emotion of Requiem.
Indeed, one wonderful characteristic of the Mozart Requiem is its drama and the shifting moods. The driving force of the basses and tenors in the Confutatis, alternated with a Voca me from the sopranos and altos that was transparent, ethereal, and angelic. My neighbor had earlier confessed that her favorite part of the Requiem was the Lacrymosa. Under Murray’s sensitive direction that section was delivered soulfully — and none of us were disappointed. The only time I felt a little disappointment was in the Domine Jesu when the chorus seemed to lose energy in the Ne absorbeat section. But the lapse was brief, and I forgot all about it in their elegant shifting from full voice to sotto voce in the Hostias movement.
So much of this piece is simply majestic, and I felt I could see and feel that majesty in the demeanor of the conductor and in the singing of the chorus. What’s the antithesis of “majestic”? Whatever it is, it can be equally satisfying, and I felt it in the Benedictus, which was delivered oh-so sensitively by both conductor and quartet. Throughout the Requiem, I felt that Conductor Murray was especially adept at selecting and maintaining appropriate tempos. The Kyrie Eleison was full of energy, the Lacrymosa didn’t drag, and when music danced, as in the Cum sanctis tuis section of the Agnus Dei — it really danced.
I haven’t said much about the balance between the orchestra and chorus. The Amaral Center is an elongated rectangle, and initially I was worried that even with 80+ members, the chorus might be too far from the audience to balance the large orchestra or even produce the drama the Requiem requires. That worry proved unfounded.
When a chorus and director perform the Mozart Requiem, they assume a responsibility. They are presenting something that is cherished by so many, something replete with expectations that may be based on a lifetime of experience with the piece. Conductor Ryan Murray and the Music in the Mountains Chorus (and the four soloists) didn’t disappoint this listener. Indeed, they presented a performance that was in every way authentic and immensely satisfying.