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Among the most impressive new choral works in recent decades is John Rutter's Mass of the Children, premiered in New York in 2003. Because it was published by Hinshaw, our state has been blessed with several performances, including a 2004 reading led by the composer himself.*
The piece, a missa brevis devoid of any deathly overtones – it's not a requiem – suggests in some respects the more recent Requiem for the Living by Dan Forrest, but Rutter's is cast in the great English choral tradition, with echoes of many of the most loved oratorios and masses in all of Western music. It's not a strict liturgical work, however, for the composer has folded into the textual mix some superb and inspiring poems – by Thomas Ken, William Blake, Lancelot Andrewes, and more, as adapted by Rutter. These English passages appear woven into and alongside traditional Latin words surely familiar to all choral singers and their listeners – Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona nobis pacem – that shape this work's five distinct parts.
"For the children" means for child singers and others, and on the occasion of this latest performance, given at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, the children were the Raleigh Boychoir Performing Choir, singing alongside the Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham, members of the RBC's Young Men's Ensemble, and distinguished soloists Andrea Edith Moore, soprano, and UNC baritone Eugene Galvin, the latter filling in on short notice for an indisposed William Adams. The magnificent accompaniment was by a wind quintet plus bass, harp, percussion, timpani, and organ. One would be hard-pressed to round up better instrumentalists than these!
As conductor Rodney Wynkoop explained, the music takes us from morning to evening with words and music that seem ideally suited for the purpose of diverting attention from worldly cares. It begins "Awake, my soul, and with the sun...," merged with the Kyrie as the singers, by sections and then together, and always with chamber-like accompaniment, share the moving words. The two soloists, sometimes together, sometimes with choral support, proved radiant throughout, singing with feeling that matched the evident emotional involvement of the choristers. Rutter knows his art and his craft, too, so the mass sections are exquisitely developed, ranging from just the thinnest wisps of music, commanding the most intense listening, to full-throated passages with joyous ringing instrumental support. The Gloria, with its fairly straightforward text, was particularly impressive, thanks to Rutter's inspired inventiveness. The Sanctus, too, was exceptionally beautiful. Perhaps the most remarkable of all is the Agnus Dei, in which the Latin words are juxtaposed with Blake's magnificent poem that begins "Little Lamb, who made thee?" – a stroke of genius, to be sure. The finale – very powerful, very moving – begins with an ancient prayer, seeks Christ's guidance, and then ends with the Doxology and Dona nobis pacem. This was indeed radiant – throughout – with exceptionally fine solo singing, singing from the boys, singing from the CSDCC and the young men augmentees – and playing that could hardly be improved upon. The acoustics of the lovely sanctuary of Hayes Baron UMC helped, too, figuratively adding icing to the musical and spiritual cake the afternoon provided so handsomely.
The boys and young men of the RBC were prepared by their director, Jeremy C. Tucker, who opened the concert by leading three short pieces sung from memory by the Performing Choir – David Ashley White's "Spirit, Moving over Chaos," the "Alleluia" from Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate, and Allan E. Naplan's "Al Shlosha D'varim" – which, accompanied by pianist Megan Yohman, collectively set an ideal mood for the major work that followed them. Tucker and his charges are well known for their several annual performances in the capital. He has recently been honored for his educational and artistic work with the NC Symphony's Maxine Swalin Award – well done!
This program will be repeated on April 7 at 5:30 p.m. in Duke Chapel. Wynkoop knows that venue's acoustics better than anyone, and this Mass seems made for cathedrals, so it should be wonderful to hear it there, too. See the sidebar for details.
*Oxford University Press now represents John Rutter's catalog.