While student musicians learned an extensive repertoire for several performances on Thursday and Friday evenings, and professional musicians learned their repertoire for performances on Saturday evenings, a group of singers came to this summer's Eastern Music Festival from mainly the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas for periodic rehearsals in advance of just one public performance.
And what a performance!
Billed as the EMF Festival Orchestra Chorus, the ensemble of nearly 50 voices performed Gabriel Fauré's ever-popular Requiem, Op. 48, and the less well known Messe Solonelle, for mixed chorus and organ, by Jean Langlais, as part of a program of organ and choral music. Not only were the two works well performed, but they also provided an interesting contrast of composing styles in sacred choral music.
André Lash, organist at Christ United Methodist Church, where the concert took place, opened the program with organ works by Jean Roger-Ducasse, Alphonse Schmitt, and Langlais that provided a bold showcase for the church's Fisk organ. Roger-Ducasse's "Pastorale" from 1909 begins as a lilting, gently surging piece and then opens up into a much grander sound from combined manuals and pedals. Lash negotiated well a long ascending figure, based on chords in the left hand and melody in the right. A spooky dissonant chord leads into a return to the gentler sound of the opening.
After shorter works by Schmitt ("Prelude," Op. 11) and Langlais ("Epilogue" for pedal solo), Lash concluded the solo instrument portion of the program with "Final" from Langlais' First Symphony for organ. The Langlais pedal composition includes an almost menacing sound at times and requires some fast and furious footwork by the performer, while this section from the symphony has an almost melodramatic feel, and portions would be good accompaniment for a silent film.
The first of the two choral compositions, Langlais' Messe Solonelle, was directed by Carole Ott, associate director of choral activities at UNC-Greensboro, and accompanied by Lash. Unlike the Fauré Requiem, with its softer and more intimate feeling, this sacred piece seems to be cut more from the same cloth as, say, Mozart's Requiem, a serious, even stern, work, but Langlais goes a step further by incorporating some serious, even stern, organ accompaniment, often as solo passages that heighten the drama and tension of the piece. The Messe Solonelle is called a composition for mixed chorus and organ for good reason. Some loud, crashing organ chords and figures highlight the "Kyrie," for example, and a variety of instrumental colors is employed throughout the piece.
The "Gloria" develops as a fugue, with entrances by each of the four voice parts, and has a chant-like sound, along with occasional organ bursts in between choral sections. After a short "Sanctus," which begins with a dramatic ascending organ line, the "Benedictus" starts with a ghostly sounding phrase in the organ, joined by women's voices singing softly in unison (an octave apart), and concludes with a dramatic and fortissimo "Hosanna in Excelsis." As with the "Gloria," the four voice parts enter separately in the "Agnus Dei," which builds in intensity through the "Dona Nobis Pacem" to an emphatic conclusion in the organ.
The chorus' sound was consistently good throughout this difficult piece. The blend and balance among and within all four voice parts were quite good, and entrances and cutoffs were precise under Ott's excellent direction.
Festival music director Gerard Schwarz led the chorus, organ, and small chamber orchestra in Fauré 's Requiem, Op. 48, a true gem in the choral literature. All four voice sections showed great skill, and as in the Langlais, blend and balance were excellent. The singers and Schwarz seemed to be totally zeroed in on each other and the music, and the chamber orchestra and Lash provided good accompaniment throughout.
One would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite part of the Requiem, which is filled with pleasures, both expected and unexpected. The tenor section was excellent in the opening "Kyrie" section, while the alto and tenor a cappella introduction to the "Offertory" was simply beautiful, and this section featured especially nice ritards at the end of phrases. The sopranos sang the difficult intervals in the "In Paradisum" section quite well.
The featured soprano soloist, Kathryn Mueller of Raleigh, who has sung with Seraphic Fire, gave an effortlessly exquisite reading to the lovely "Pie Jesu" section. She possesses a truly beautiful voice, with broad dynamic range. Keith Spencer was the baritone soloist in the "Offertory" and "Libera Me" sections, and Randall Weiss was violin soloist in the "Sanctus" section. Spencer's voice is firm and full-bodied, and he added the appropriate weight to those sections, although some enunciation seemed a bit less-than-precise in the "Libera Me" section. Weiss' solo violin accompaniment in the "Sanctus" was well-played if a bit small. While maintaining balance is important, it seemed that the violin line was too much in the background and could have been a bit more prominent.
These are minor quibbles, however, because this gorgeous piece of music received a gorgeous reading. In a festival filled with musical highlights, the festival's lone choral performance would rank among the best.
The festival continues through July 26. For details, see our calendar.