The Carolina Concert Choir presented an "All-Sacred Concert" in two performances (Friday evening and Saturday afternoon) conducted by artistic director Bradford Gee in St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. I attended the Saturday performance with pleasure.
The program may have seemed austere to some ears, since concertgoers are often given substantial musical fare in a "serious" first half followed by lighter selections in the second half. Not this time. Sacred music by Felix Mendelssohn, Maurice Duruflé, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Henryk Mikolaj Górecki came before intermission; then came the major work: Duruflé's Requiem.
It was a good afternoon for Duruflé (1902-86), who published only thirteen works in his lifetime. An indication of his perfectionism is that the Requiem (Op. 9) was finished in 1947 while Quatre Motets (Op. 10) is dated 1960. Four short motets in thirteen years! His compositions are carefully crafted and deserve careful performance. On this occasion they received just that, and this review will concentrate on Duruflé.
The choir performed two of the four Opus 10 motets. Each motet is based on a Gregorian chant melody. "Tantum ergo" uses the most familiar of these, a chant often sung in Roman Catholic services during the benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The Carolina Concert Choir's attention to meticulous detail was demonstrated when the ensemble, as one, moved from the "e" to the "n" sound in the extended "en" syllable of the final "amen." The singers invoked a profound sense of reverent conclusion. "Ubi caritas" was the other motet presented, and it benefitted from the choir's excellent Latin diction. I am not fluent in Latin, but "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est," sung clearly and with conviction told me "Where there is charity and love, God is there." These two motets left the audience with a craving to hear "more, more" Duruflé, a desire that was satisfied in the second half of the program with the nine-movement Requiem.
Duruflé composed three accompaniment versions for his Requiem: organ and full orchestra, organ and strings, and organ alone. For this performance, the organist was Matthew Brown of First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, NC. Cellist Tyler Ray added some string accompaniment, presumably taken from the "organ and strings" version. The Carolina Concert Choir and the church's fine Harrison & Harrison organ provided a balance, blend, and tone color that are possible only with a relatively small ensemble (fewer than 40) and intelligent organ registration. One example occurred in the "Kyrie," when the organ uses reed stops to present the Gregorian chant in long tones, while the chorus provided contrasting timbre and pace.
The first major fortissimo occurred in the "Sanctus" with the call "Hosanna in excelsis." It is a carefully modulated moment of beauty and bluster, power but grace, presented without harshness. The "Libera me" was the only movement in which I found it difficult to follow the text, particularly in soprano passages. Probably this was no fault of theirs. Acoustic science has shown that the human vocal apparatus does not resonate easily at the high frequencies of sopranos. Bass voices create their vowels more readily and naturally.
The 42-minute Requiem concluded with a deeply moving "In Paradisum" in which Duruflé invokes both the downward movement of the body into the grave and the upward movement of the soul towards heaven, concluding with an unresolved final harmony that indicates eternity, no detectable conclusion.
The other works on the program appropriately contemplated the Duruflé. Mendelssohn's "Above All Praise and All Majesty," from the oratorio Paulus (St. Paul). was sung in English. Telemann's Laudate Jehovam, omnes gentes, a short three-movement work, has a Largo that suffered from a very ragged ending by the accompanying strings, contrasting with the precision of the chorus.
Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki is best known for his Symphony No. 3, a classical Grammy nominee in David Zinman's recording. He should be better known for liturgical offerings such as his "Beatus Vir" and the short work on this program, the "Totus tuus" for unaccompanied choir, composed in 1987 to a text by Maria Boguslawska. With many repetitions of portions of the brief text "I am all yours, Mary," this is a reflective contemplation. The final repeated "Maria" reminded me of the mysticism of Olivier Messiaen's music.
What does one do after the Duruflé Requiem when the applause calls for an encore? If you are Brad Gee, you have the Carolina Concert Choir sing an "Alleluia" by Kenton Coe, the Tennessee-based composer who, I am told, was in the audience. How fitting.