The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
European Masterworks - March 14, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
This review is going to begin at the end. As the echo of the final chord decayed and director Donald Kendrick lowered his arms and relaxed, the applause began and people began to rise to their feet. Almost immediately the enthusiastic applause included loud cheers from many parts of the audience. And it went on and on, through two curtain calls; not just the applause, but the cheers, especially when the 145-member chorus was acknowledged and when Kendrick took his own bows. After hearing many excellent performances of this organization in recent years, this was the most enthusiastic audience reaction that I can remember. So what generated all the excitement?
Let's start with Mozart. There is something about his music that resonates with people. It's almost as if our brains are wired to appreciate its grandeur and its subtleties. And the Great Mass in C Minor is a perfect example of the composer's appeal. I can't begin to analyze the work itself; I approach it as the typical audience member, with minimal background knowledge of musical theory and history, and no recollection of the piece itself. Saturday night, I was a blank slate on which the experience of this piece would be written. And I was dazzled by it, forgetting to take many notes and getting lost in the music.
Still, there was much to notice about this performance. The chorus was magnificent: passionate yet controlled. This piece is obviously a singer's delight. The chorus was noticeably energized by the music, and I envied the fun that they were having. (More of them later.)
The soloists were certainly a highlight of the performance. Soprano Nikki Einfeld had the most work, and she performed with spirit and precision. Mozart demands a lot of the first soprano soloist in this piece. The vocal range, for one thing, is very demanding, and some of the low notes Mozart wrote for the soprano were just cruel. But she responded with unfailing energy and sensitivity, and I noticed especially how exquisitely she handled some of the phrases in her upper register.
There was something special about soprano Marina Boudart Harris. Her first appearance in the Mozart was in the “Laudamus te,” and I found myself appreciating her rich, listenable tone. Then it struck me that she was singing the long piece from memory — and smiling during the rests. That air of confidence and grace somehow made the listening so much more pleasant. And then there were the many vocal flourishes which she handled so adroitly. During one of these I caught Kendrick glancing at her and smiling, appreciating her command of the music that they both obviously loved. Having gained my attention in this way, I noticed that a pleasant expression never left Harris' face, whether singing or sitting and waiting. These people are all performers when they are on stage, and to me, the performance doesn't end when they stop singing. They're always in full view, and I count their demeanor as part of the performance.
Much has been said about the fact that Mozart never completed this mass. I would like to think that if he had, he would have given the male soloists more to sing. As it was tenor Ross Hauck and bass Daniel Yoder rose to the occasion during the few passages that Mozart gave them. Hauck mastered critical and difficult fast passages brilliantly in the “Quoniam tu solus” and Yoder deftly executed some excellent solo leads in the “Benedictus" with Ross sharing similar solo entrances beautifully.
I don't mean to slight the orchestra. Coming from a choral background, I'm less sensitive to their specific excellences, though I was conscious of the lovely work of the flute, oboe and bassoon in the “Et incarnatus est” section, and at one point I couldn't help but notice an impressive passage by the violas. Suffice it to say that without the accurate and expressive playing by the orchestra, the experience for all of us would have been greatly diminished.
I think it was halfway through the second section of the mass when I noticed that Donald Kendrick was directing without music in front of him. I've seen him conduct from memory before: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony comes to mind, and there may have been other examples. But this was 55+ minutes of music. And I watched him not only maintain tempo, but give cues to specific instruments in the orchestra and to each vocal part, all the while mouthing the words and anticipating each change in dynamics. So what does this mean? Apart from the fact that it's a phenomenal exhibition of memory and commitment to the music, it gives extra confidence to both orchestra and chorus, and it allows the conductor to exercise an extraordinary control over the music, so that the performance itself is a unique work of art, crafted to a high degree of artistic expression.
It was in the great emotional build-up of the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” movement that I took special note of Kendrick's characteristic intensity as he conducted. It occurred to me what a gift it would be to understand and feel what he does in conducting such great music that he knows so well. Orchestra and chorus have some of that gift, and if they all do well, we in the audience get a hint (but a moving and satisfying hint) of what they all understand and feel.
Maybe all I've said to this point can help explain the audience's reaction at the close of the Mozart. Now let's back up to the beginning of the concert. I urge you to consult James McCormick's notes on both pieces. He gives well-researched background on both composers and insightful comment on the music that really help one appreciate it.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Cecilia McDowell is a contemporary composer with impeccable credentials and a growing body of work that is widely admired, as McCormick explains in the program notes. This was the West Coast Premier of her Magnificat, and it was much anticipated, and heralded in part by an article in the Sacramento Bee's Ticket Section (March 13, 2015, page 5). In that article Donald Kendrick was quoted as saying, "[Her music is] so colorful and joyful.... It's cutting edge, but not so dissonant that it’s not appealing." Indeed that was my experience. From the very start of the orchestral overture I recognized a definitely contemporary sound, but it felt like the kind of music one could listen to for hours. And when the chorus entered in this first section, itself titled "Magnificat," my note to myself read: "The choral sound is magnificent." The singing was fluid, rising and falling, but toward the end it felt like an invisible organist had just added the 32' stops.
The subsequent solo ("Ecce enim ex hoc beatam") by soprano Nikki Einfeld had a very different character, more disjointed and more adventuresome, recalling Kendrick's observation in the Bee article that "the piece represents a vocal workout for its performers." And Einfeld handled this workout with what seemed to me to be great accuracy and confidence.
The next section ("Quia fecit mihi magna") was choral and more reverential, maintaining a low dynamic level through a lot of repeated musical patterns. It seemed to me that the singers’ attention had to be rapt, or they would have a difficult finding their place again in the music. Considering the unusual settings of the familiar Bible passage (Luke 1:46-55), especially in these first two movements, I found myself thinking that this is essentially musical story-telling, giving new depth and nuance to the ideas of a familiar text. Later on, there were sections of drama that made the piece seem almost like an oratorio, minus the recitatives.
Throughout the Magnificat there was excellent solo work by soprano Einfeld and mezzo (in this role) Harris. Both had to exercise great precision in pitch due to the close harmonies often required. Beyond that, I found them well-balanced in tone and even in energy level, and able to fill the auditorium when necessary, never overmatched by the chamber orchestra behind them.
The chorus had the final word in this piece. In the last section ("Deposuit potentes") they rose in intensity to a finale that was nothing short of triumphant. And as the piece came to a close, I remember thinking that this is serious, accessible music that does justice to the text.
So the enthusiasm of the audience at the close of the concert was not just for the Mozart: it was for McDowell's Magnificat, as well. As host James McCormick said in his introduction, it was an evening in which "contemporary meets classical," and the combination made for a concert that was an uplifting, energizing — and memorable — experience for all.
More images of this concert are at this link: http://photomedia.smugmug.com/EUROPEAN-MASTER-WORKs-March-14/