The NC Master Chorale has been on a roll this year, offering a refreshing assortment of rarely-heard music to its discerning and appreciative audience. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but two of the group’s concert programs embraced both fairy tales and marriages. Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, might have had a few things to say about the psyches of the program makers in these cases, and for sure the tale and the marriage, too, that figured in the opening work on the present concert could not have evoked much confidence or admiration, for that matter, in children or their parents. The story that served as the basis of Mahler’s first large-scale work, a cantata titled Das klagende Lied, drawn (WordPros’ notes remind us) from tales by Ludwig Bechstein and the Brothers Grimm, speaks of love, treachery, murder, music, truth, and a wedding feast so totally disrupted that the walls of the palace collapse. Yep, it was just the thing to put everyone in a festive mood.

And indeed, it did, for the performance was stunning in almost every respect. It’s a rare item on concert programs, for openers, and conductor Alfred E. Sturgis had prepared the three soloists (soprano Danielle Talamantes, mezzo-soprano Christy Lynn Brown, and tenor Wade Henderson), the large chorus, and the substantial orchestra (around 60 players on the platform, augmented by offstage contributions from members of the NC Wind Orchestra) with his customary attention and skill, and he demonstrated admirable command of the massed forces as he led the two big sections of the composer’s final version of the score. Special praise is due the mezzo-soprano, who carried the lion’s share of the solo work; Brown’s voice, diction, and projection were particularly fine. Balance was generally good, even in the face of all those brass players and the triple winds. There was a lot of distance between the conductor and the choir, divided along the back wall of Meymandi Concert Hall, with some in the loft and some on the stage level, directly behind the instrumentalists – this sort of separation always makes coordination tricky, but the singers trusted the stick instead of their ears, and togetherness reigned supreme. Overall, then, the grim and depressing piece made a wonderful impression, and the response from the relatively sparse crowd was warm and protracted.

Also on the program was Berlioz’s remarkable Te Deum, given in a complete version – a bit too complete, maybe – with the ceremonial orchestral “March for the presentation of the flags” at the end. It was probably the work’s first performance here, and it was good enough to have made the long, long wait worthwhile, but that said, it wasn’t quite as big a deal as the composer himself wanted and in fact achieved at its premiere in 1855. On that occasion, there were mustered 600 children, an adult chorus of 200, and an orchestra of 100 or so – plus a tenor soloist. In Raleigh, there were 30 kids, from the Raleigh Boychoir (Robert E. Unger, director), around 200 choristers (out of 225 or so listed in the program), that aforementioned orchestra used in the Mahler, and tenor Henderson, whose stentorian vocalism gave the massive piece its crowning glory.

The piece is in six basic if fairly atypical parts (Te Deum laudamus; Tibi omnes, followed by a Sanctus; Dignare, Domine, introduced by a Prélude; Te, Christe, Rex gloriae; Te ergo quaesumus; and Judex cederis). The tenor sings only in the next to the last of these; that section suggests, in musical terms, the glorious Sanctus of the better-known, more often-heard Requiem, and Henderson was truly radiant in this music. The chorus was impressive throughout, hurling the words across space with particular emphasis. Sturgis tended to the balances and phrasing like the master he has become. Only the boys seemed superfluous – there weren’t enough of them to make much of a perceptible difference, and the imbalance of the big chorus (there are twice as many women as men) meant that there were already plenty of treble voices in the choral mix. All that said, even if there were only about a third as many souls engaged in this massive hymn of praise as Berlioz would have expected (!), there were enough for it to make a great and memorable noise in the concert hall – and to sustain the Berlioz fans among us till the next time we encounter this extraordinary score, be it in this life or the hereafter!

There is a big organ part in the Berlioz, played by Susan Lohr, the NCMC’s accompanist. It – the organ – sounded o.k., for an electronic device, but its presence served as a reminder that while there is an endowed organ chair in the NC Symphony (some of whose members were in the accompanying ensemble), there is no permanent instrument in this hall. Yes, there’s a recession going on, but getting a real organ for Meymandi should remain a prime long-term goal of our state-supported orchestra and our city.

It would have been better to have omitted that earth-bound march…, one of Berlioz’s few miscalculations…, and to have ended with the choral singing of the last number of the Te Deum. Failing that, someone should have dusted off the French romantic master’s grand and glorious setting of “La Marseillaise,” for which version all the necessary artists were already on hand. That would have sent the crowd away with springs in their steps, rather than with sepulchral gloom in their hearts!

In sum, then, this combination of rare and beautiful works for large performing forces made this concert one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the season, and the realization of the program by the NCMC and its many musical colleagues did not disappoint. And the season’s not over yet, either: still on tap from the capital city’s big choral organization are works by James MacMillan and J. Mark Scearce and an all-Gershwin afternoon centering on excerpts from Porgy and Bess – click here [link inactive 2011] for details.