Looking back on weekend's Choral Arts, Pro Musica, Shriver Hall concerts

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Pro Musica Rara was in a fighting mood last Sunday.

Last weekend included another whirlwind of concerts in and around Baltimore. The programs were drawn predominantly from the venerable Austro-German classical canon -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- but novelties had their day as well.

The action started, for me, Saturday afternoon at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, where Baltimore Choral Arts Society delivered a 90-minute assortment of sacred fare conducted by Tom Hall.

Beethoven's "Elegischer Gesang," a rarely encountered gem, was so tenderly performed by choristers and orchestra alike that Hall's decision to belt out a cheery, heavily amplified greeting to the audience immediately afterward proved all the more glaring.

Back to gems. There is nothing quite so pure and perfect in the choral repertoire as Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."

I was not entirely convinced by Hall's decision to honor the composer's sole dynamic marking, "sotto voce," so faithfully that the entire piece was delivered at one, unvaried dynamic level. Seems like carrying literalism just a wee bit too far. That said, the choir's subtle articulation and nicely balanced tone proved impressive.

Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" was brightly sung by soprano Nola Richardson, with sterling contributions from trumpeter Andrew Balio. Sensitive string solos in the orchestra also added much to the experience.

To close, Bach's sunlit "Magnificat" received a vibrant account, deftly paced and shaped by Hall. He drew especially refined singing from the chorus in the high-spirited counterpoint of "Fecit potentiam." A few spots in the final portions of the score were not as firmly delivered, but this was, on balance, another reminder of the Choral Arts Society's considerable quality.

The fine soloists in the "Magnificat" included tenor John Wesley Wright and mezzo Lauren McDonald, who produced elegant results in the "Et misericordia" section.

Sunday afternoon found me at Towson University's Center for the Arts, where Pro Musica Rara was in a fighting mood.

Artistic director and cellist Allen Whear put together a program that took note of the Battle of Baltimore/"Star-Spangled Banner" bicentennial. In addition to assorted "battle pieces" from the turn of the 19th century, there was room for the "Anacreontic Song" that provided the tune for our national anthem, as well as an alternate setting of Francis Scott Key's celebrated poem. 

In terms of musical quality, much of the descriptive material showcased here (Francois Devienne's "The Battle of Gemappe," Benjamin Carr's "The Siege of Tripoli," et al.) is not exactly top-drawer, with all that tonic-dominant alternation. But it was fun to hear the sort of stuff that once delighted listeners with atmospheric sounds of troops advancing, retreating, triumphing.

Whear, violinist Cynthia Roberts and fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch delivered those pieces with a good deal of character.

Soprano Julianne Baird made a welcome return visit to Pro Musica Rara for the occasion, reprising some of the items from her 2011 concert with the ensemble.

If her diction was sometimes fuzzy, Baird's silvery voice and instantly communicative styling proved as winning as ever. Highlights include a hearty version of "The Anacreontic Song" and James Hewitt's soft-edged version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

My favorite moment on Sunday was the soprano's poignant phrasing in Alexander Reinagle's "I Have a Silent Sorrow Here," an endearing example of early American song. 

I finished up the weekend, musically, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, where the Shriver Hall Concert Series presented the first-rate Belcea Quartet.

This ensemble from England has developed exceptional cohesiveness in terms of artistic temperament and technique. The players have a way of making music sound freshly composed, even as they make clear just how long and intimately they have lived with every note.

In Mozart's F major String Quartet (K. 590), the musicians underlined the many ways the piece paves the way for Beethoven and Schubert, who just happened to be the other composers on the program. The startling flurries of dissonance in the middle movements had wonderful expressive weight, while the whispered closing measures of each movement received an extra poetic inflection.

Beethoven's D major Quartet (Op. 19, No. 3) inspired playing of abundant character from the Belcea musicians. They maintained a telling tension throughout, but there was always room for lyrical stretching. The wit of the finale was dynamically shaded with particular flair.

Tonal warmth and penetrating phrase-molding marked the Belcea's account of Schubert's "Rosamunde" Quartet, a kind of four-act drama filled with light and dark forces, where the light ones barely, bravely win out in the end.

This taut and absorbing performance helped to give the music fresh impact, nowhere more compellingly than at the very start, when first violinist Corina Belcea sculpted the aching principal theme with the instincts of a seasoned lieder singer.

 

 

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