Choral Music, Orchestral Music Review Print

Choice & Superlative All-Mozart: Winston-Salem Symphony

April 23, 2002 - Winston-Salem, NC:

A well-filled house was on hand April 23 in the Stevens Center for a full program of choice mature works by Mozart. Music Director Peter Perret was the exacting and unintrusive conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra. After intermission, about a hundred singers, members of the Winston-Salem Chorale and the North Carolina School of the Arts Cantata Singers, filled four rows at the back of the stage. With the women in white blouses on both sides and the men in black coats in the middle, they looked like Oreo cookies in reverse.

Mozart symphonies are rarely programmed in the Triangle, and when they are, Nos. 35, 40 or 41 tend to be chosen. My own favorites have always been Nos. 36 and 38. In his concise pre-concert lecture, timpanist Massie Johnson couldn't recall performing Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K.425 ("Linz") in a long career that included playing in an orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Not cowed by musical Puritans of the original instrument movement, Perret used full string sections along with two horns, two trumpets, two oboes and two bassoons. Mozart's scoring is merciless and comparable to cooking with milk in that the slightest errors are instantly revealed. Despite the large string sections, Perret's tempos allowed for crisp and clean string articulation. The woodwinds were superb. Johnson had pointed out a unique feature of the delectable Andante--instead of omitting timpani and trumpets in this movement, Mozart uses them softly to punctuate the music and--at several points--has the timpani mimic the deep pizzicatos of the double basses. This was the first opportunity I had had fully to appreciate that aspect of the scoring. Oboes and bassoons were delightful in the Minuet, and the Presto, with all the detailing between sections and preciseness of the fast runs, was ravishing.

It was wonderful to get to hear the Mass in C Minor, K.427 ("The Great") instead of the more commonly programmed Requiem. Like the latter, this Mass is an unfinished masterpiece, the "Credo" and "Et incarnatus est" having been left in fragmentary states. The score was begun in Vienna in July 1782, and Mozart returned to it again the following May. It was not a commission but rather the votive mass was composed to fulfill a vow taken when he married Constanze Weber.

The work served to introduce his wife to his disapproving father when it was performed in Salzburg in October 1783. Many authorities believe that Constanze sang the very difficult soprano parts. The Mass requires two superb sopranos but no alto, and there is relatively little for the tenor and bass to do. On the NCSA faculty since 1992, the clear, firm and well-supported soprano of Marilyn Taylor was on display in part of the "Kyrie" and the "Laudamus te" of the "Gloria." In the "Domine Deus," her darker voice blended well with the lighter soprano of her former NCSA pupil, Jennifer Welch-Babidge, now a Metropolitan Opera singer. I particularly relished the dark full sound of the choir in the "Qui tollis," and their execution of the line "Miserere nobis" was truly special. An uncredited organist played a prominent part in this section. The fast moving "Quoniam" allowed Welch-Babidge to unleash her soaring soprano voice. The even sound of her voice from soft to full throttle was a wonder to hear. In his lecture, Johnson had emphasized the life-changing effect of Mozart's discovery of the works of Bach and Handel, due to the efforts of the Prefect of Vienna's Imperial Library, Baron Gottfried Swieten (who also played a similar role as catalyst to Haydn and Beethoven). This was evident in the rich scoring and fugal writing of the "Jesu Christe" for full choir. The interweaving of lines was fully satisfying. An even fuller display of Welch-Babidge's virtuosity was heard in the first part of the "Credo." Her diction was flawless. I don't know which was more amazing--the heights to which she could soar evenly and precisely or her extraordinary ability to sustain high notes. Her depth of feeling for the words was also exceptional.

A highlight of the evening was the gentle andante of the "Et incarnatus est" portion of the Credo in which, like vines upon the trellis of Welch-Babidge's voice, a woodwind trio consisting of flutist Kathryn Levy, oboist Cara Fish and bassoonist Mark Popkin wove a spiral of sound about her ornamented line. The scoring of the Credo movement showed Mozart's debt to Handel. Tenor Richard Heard was fine in his several sections, mostly joined with the sopranos. Bass John Williams had only an ensemble role in the final surviving "Benedictus." An extended standing ovation was the reward for a moving evening of Mozart well realized.

Soprano Marilyn Taylor will be remembered by Triangle audiences and others for her Lieder recital at Cherry Hill last December (reviewed in cvnc) and for an earlier series of concerts in which she presented the songs of Charles Vardell, a repeat of which, at Piccolo Spoleto, I heard. Her splendid new Albany CD, Art Songs from Carolina, contains music by Vardell and works by Kenneth Frazelle and Robert Ward, no strangers to Triangle music lovers.