Season finales from Choral Arts Society, Shriver Hall

Sunday’s musical splendors, for me, started with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society’s season finale in the afternoon at Grace United Methodist Church. The cleverly constructed program gave audiences a chance to compare different settings of the same texts.

Tom Hall, longtime artistic director of the chorus, chose a good number of pieces with spiritual texts, mixing in a little Shakespeare along the way. The composers represented were decidedly tonal in orientation, and several shared a rather generic style (I would have loved at least one walk on the wild side).

Highlights included Franz Biebl’s harmonically gorgeous and atmospherically rich “Ave Maria” for antiphonal choirs. Hall shaped the score with a tender touch and drew supple singing from his forces. The contrasting “Ave Maria,” was the vibrant, nimble setting by Arvo Part.

A pair of “O Magnum Mysterium” treatments yielded rewards -- Jennifer Higdon’s dynamic one, with colorful chords and flashes of drama; Morten Lauridsen’s rapt, eloquent version. Both pieces seemed to inspire the singers deeply.

Throughout the afternoon, Hall’s honing of the chorus could be felt. If intonation did not always hold steadfast in some a cappella items, the overall level of music-making was as polished and smoothly molded and it was warmly expressive.

Sharing accompaniment duties as needed, and doing so most attentively, were pianist Leo Wanenchak and organist John Walker (he got a solo shot, too, delivering a chorale-improvisation by Charles Tournemire with great flair).

Original plans called for a bit of star power -- vivacious Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah was to have been on hand to recite some of those texts. When he had to be in London instead, the speaking role fell to Everyman Theatre veteran Kyle Prue, whose recitations were on the dry side.

I skipped out of the Choral Arts event early to get in on some of the season finale of the Shriver Hall Concert Series at Johns Hopkins University, where noted German cellist Alban Gerhardt was featured in a recital.

The event also marked the end of Jephta Drachman’s two-decade tenure as board president of the series. She received a hearty standing ovation from the crowd after her pre-performance remarks. (This particular concert was given in memory of Drachman’s parents, legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and his wife Jacqueline.)

In the solo Bach suite (No. 6) that opened the recital, I found Gerhardt’s playing more admirable for its expressive freedom and flair than for its tone quality and clarity of articulation.

Joined by the fine pianist Cecile Licad, the cellist then offered a superb account of the Debussy sonata. Gerhardt drew out the dark beauty of the score with such terrific tension in his phrasing that even the lyrical moments had a telling edge.

In Schumann’s rhapsodic Adagio and Allegro in A-flat, the cellist poured out a golden, enveloping tone and found abundant nuance and character at every turn. His bravura sweep in the Allegro lit up the hall. Licad delivered finely detailed playing of her own in both works.

The audience, at least in the balcony, left something to be desired -- lots of rustling; trips in and out; worst of all, a chorus of "Jingle Bells" during each piece, played on the absurdly clanking bracelets worn by the fidgety woman behind me (naturally).

As another Shriver Hall season closes, it would be comforting to think that, with all the billions being raised for undoubtedly worthy causes at Hopkins these days, a smidgen of that bounty could be targeted for a few upgrades to this venue.

The hall badly needs warmer acoustics and less squeaky seats, for a start. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg could drop some pocket change off the next time he is on campus.

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