Just before the mad rush of holiday pops concerts, the NC Symphony joined forces with the North Carolina Master Chorale and several excellent soloists to present Mozart’s “Great” Mass in C minor and a few Schubert favorites. Both ensembles performed under the leadership of Maestro Grant Llewellyn, who has just been named Music Director Laureate beginning in the 2020-2021 season. Presented in a festively decorated Meymandi Concert Hall, the program attracted a sizable audience eager to hear a Mozart mass other than the ubiquitous Requiem. While the Schubert selections did not make top billing in pre-concert advertising, perhaps they should have, as they turned out to be absolute gems.

The first half of the program consisted exclusively of orchestral and vocal works by Schubert. The orchestra opened with the lush, stirring, and ever romantic Rosamunde Overture, D. 644. There are two overtures associated with Helmina von Chézy’s unsuccessful play Rosamunde, both of which were written for other productions. The overture published with the play (and the most commonly performed version) was lifted from incidental music for Georg Ernst von Hofmann’s play Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) – another flop. Regardless of the questionable origins, the piece is a winning combination of soaring melodies and playful motivic development. While it appeared to take both Maestro Llewellyn and the orchestra a few minutes to adjust, the slightly reduced ensemble sparkled during this charming opening number once they settled in.

Joélle Harvey, soprano, joined the orchestra for three Schubert lieder to complete the first portion of the program. A Mozart specialist with a varied and impressive lineup for the rest of the season, Harvey offered a deeply personal, intimate, and yet never overstated interpretation of three lieder. All three are staples of the repertoire, “Nacht und Träume” (Night and Dreams), D. 827, “Die Forelle” (The Trout), D. 550, and the omnipresent “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), D. 118. The “Trout” was orchestrated by Benjamin Britten, the other two by Max Reger. Harvey’s flexible, delicate, and yet penetrating timbre was matched with effortless diction and a winsome engagement with the audience.

The headline selection, Mozart’s Mass in C minor (The Great Mass), is often described as the underappreciated equal of the more commonly performed Requiem. Much has been made of Mozart’s interest in the music of Bach and Handel at the time of composition, and deservedly so. The contrapuntal writing is exceptional, but the brilliant compositional feat of paying homage to past composers while also innovating and looking to the future makes this piece stand out.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina Master Chorale, rehearsed by Maestro Al Sturgis, was represented by nearly 80 singers. If the program centered on Bruckner or Verdi, it would have been thrilling to hear so many voices, but in this particular case, more was not. Arguments regarding historical performance practice aside, the balance issues between the reduced orchestra and the large better choral ensemble frequently drowned out the lovely intricacies of the contrapuntal interior voices, especially in the Credo and Sanctus. Additionally, diction was inconsistent both within and between movements. That said, the “Qui Tollis” had some lovely moments of clarity and dynamic contrast. Hopefully, the next time NC Symphony and Master Chorale collaborate, the forces available and the needs of the program will be in better alignment.

Sopranos Harvey and Anya Matanovic, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Federico De Michelis all presented sensitive and effective performances. Harvey’s delicate, yet full-bodied tone and interpretive sensitivity truly stood out during her arias. Mozart attempted to use this mass as a means to get his father to accept his new bride by composing some fantastic coloratura writing for Constanze to display her range and technique. The mass is quite a showcase for the main soprano soloist, and Harvey was more than up to the challenge.

I would be remiss not to congratulate three stellar music educators, Veronica Allen, Eddie Adams, and Timothy Price for winning the annual NC Symphony Music Educator Awards for 2018. While it would be more to the point if our state government were to step up and fulfill its obligations to support our educators, the least we can do is thank our teachers for the invaluable groundwork they lay in building the next generation of musicians and audiences.

Folks, whether you go to hear the Schubert or the Mozart, you have one more chance to hear the program. Additionally, the holiday season is upon us with a rush of concerts and performances all over the state, which means you should take a look at our calendar for details on both the second performance of the Mass and all the holiday pops in your area!