Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s East Campus was only about two thirds full for a concert that should have packed them in Sunday afternoon. The Choral Society of Durham and a very fine symphony orchestra under the baton of Rodney Wynkoop entertained the audience with Poulenc’s sprightly and meditative Gloria and a variety of charming and moving opera choruses.

Francis Poulenc’s contribution to 20th century music is idiomatic — some judged ingenious — some considered bordering on the trivial. Gloria was written in 1959-60 and first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch in 1961. It is a setting of the second section of the ordinary of the mass. When set as a free standing mass movement, composers since the renaissance have divided it up into phrases with musical development in each phrase. Vivaldi chose twelve sections for his setting; usually it falls into four parts. Poulenc divides his setting into six movements, roughly equally divided between lively and joyful music and quiet and reflective. In movements three, five and six, he adds a soprano soloist partly like a cantor and partly in dialogue with the chorus. Louise Toppin sang with beautiful control, especially on the high unaccompanied entrances and the difficult leaps in the “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” section. Her vocal quality throughout was smooth as butter. The chorus sang with enthusiasm as though this were their very favorite piece. Diction was clear, entrances were on the mark and the blend was consistently balanced. The orchestra, with an exceptional brass section and very fine woodwinds and percussion including harp, was steady and realized the excitement of Poulenc’s capabilities.

As always, the program notes by Susan Dakin were well written, helpful and a pleasure to read.  In this instance, she reused notes by former CSD conductor Larry Cook, who conducted the Gloria in December 1983. Cook quoted Poulenc: “The second movement caused a scandal: I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of Gozzoli frescoes in which angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day.” It was an image that seemed to make the danceable “Laudamus te” and much of the rest of this music fall into place just right. After all, “Gloria” is a statement of exuberant celebration.

After intermission, the opera choruses were pure delight, beginning with the tranquil greeting of the dawn from the opening scene of Rossini’s William Tell. “Ave Maria” from Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites was preceded and followed by brief orchestral interludes from this most emotionally shattering of all operas. It was touching and ominous for those of us who know this work and its overwhelming ending with the Carmelite nuns walking one by one to the guillotine. The women of the chorus glowed, and Toppin, who joined them in the role of Mother Maria, added her somber touch.

The “Bell Chorus” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is another opening chorus that sets an innocent and cheerful scene as a contrasting backdrop for the tragedy that is to follow. “Patria oppressa” from Macbeth was something else altogether; one of those powerful and moving choruses that Verdi had to write. It, like “Va, Pensiero,” the Four Sacred Pieces and the great Manzoni Requiem reveal the mind of a composer who felt deeply and believed devoutly in his country and his faith.  The women had an opportunity to sparkle again in another Verdi chorus from Macbeth, only this time not as nuns but as witches in the Act 1, scene 1, “Witches Chorus.” Well, it is an old dilemma women have always faced: you’re either a nun or a witch. You know how it goes.

Next came the men’s turn to shine, first as pilgrims returning from Rome (“Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser) and then as soldiers returning triumphantly from war (“Soldiers’ Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust.) This also may say something about the terrible dilemma men must face, does it not? The rich Wagnerian harmony, the stirring melody, and the sound of men’s voices rising in this grand anthem were special for me. On the other hand I have always felt that the “Soldiers’ Chorus” is rather silly, but that may say more about me than about the music.
The concert closed with two festive scenes. The first, from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti, was the second act wedding reception that featured tenor Daniel C. Stein singing the role of Arthur. The second was the ball at the Larins’ home from Eugene Onegin, featuring Tchaikovsky’s wonderful and enduring waltz.

At the beginning of the opera chorus portion of the concert, Wynkoop inadvertently knocked his baton off the conductor’s stand. He reached down to pick it up, turned to the audience and said, “I did that on purpose to lighten the mood.” Whereupon he flipped the baton up into the air and retrieved it again, inviting the audience to enjoy the opera choruses and to dance in the aisles if they felt like it. I am sure many felt like it, as did I. After vigorous applause we were treated to an encore — a reprise of the final chorus of “The Waltz” from Eugene Onegin — and then we all danced out of Baldwin Auditorium and on through our evening activities.