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Two musical masterworks make for great Annapolis weekend

Annapolis became a major cultural metropolis this month, thanks to the presentation of two musical masterworks — one by a major 19th-century symphony composer, the other by a major 19th-century opera composer. Both works, which premiered within 20 years of each other, focus on the meaning of life and death.

At the U.S. Naval Academy's Alumni Hall on April 19, the Distinguished Artists Series closed with the 39th annual Spring Oratorio. The presentation of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 featured Aaron Smith conducting the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Naval Academy men's and women's glee clubs, the Goucher College Chorus, and soloists.

And on April 20 and 21 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and four soloists presented Giuseppe Verdi's "Messa da Requiem," conducted by J. Ernest Green.

At the start of the concert at Alumni Hall, the audience was informed that the group of over 300 performers represented "the largest assemblage ever on stage at the Naval Academy." Together, they would deliver all of the drama and color this huge work requires.

Mahler's work, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, requires a giant orchestra and a large chorus. Here a three-section chorus of at least 150 voices was joined by soloists Karla Scott and Kenniecia Grant. The orchestra included organist Monte Maxwell.

The first movement starts as a somber funeral march, expressed by low strings in dark sonority that instantly drew us in, the emotional impact heightened by oboes and English horns. Violins offered a lighter melody before a brass chorale hinted at the resurrection theme. The first movement closes by signaling in drumbeats what would later engulf us.

The second movement offers a lighter, more tranquil melody that included a dance segment suggesting nature.

The third movement is a scherzo tangle of dark dances that evolve into a compilation of melodies before dramatically building together into the desperate anguish of the finale — all splendidly captured by the orchestra in this performance.

The fourth movement begins with a lovely melody in a vocal solo that was beautifully delivered by Scott, who invested with sincerity the German words that translate as "I am from God and will return to God. The dear God will grant me a little light."

The fifth movement opens ominously in an unfolding drama that depicts Judgment Day, heard here in drums and crashing cymbals that produced a furious roar unlike anything usually heard in concert halls. The fearsome sound was eventually contrasted by the gentler, otherworldly sound of the chorus, which entered singing in soft tones.

A prolonged standing ovation was testament to the superb music the audience had heard.

We move from a symphonic work to one that is essentially operatic with Verdi's "Messa da Requiem," chosen to close the 2011-12 season in performances by the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra and soloists.

In a lecture before the concert, Green said the Annapolis Chorale numbers 155, and for this performance the orchestra consisted of 45 players. Green also noted that Verdi had intended that this work be performed in a concert hall, not in a church.

The piece is sectioned in Mass form, beginning with a lovely Kyrie sung by chorus and soloists before the "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath), a dramatic 10-part section filled with operatic fortissimo, especially the "Tuba mirum," the judgment segment, which continues with parts for soloists and chorus.

Next is the Offertory, featuring soloists in "Domine Jesu Christie" and "Hostias," before the Sanctus featuring a double chorus. This is followed by the "Lux aeterna" sung by a mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass, before the work concludes with the "Libera me," sung by a soprano and chorus.

The chorus and orchestra clearly relished matching each other to meet every challenge of Verdi's demanding masterwork. Green found excellent soloists to join the effort, introducing soprano Christina Lamberti and tenor Jonathan Winell, who added distinction.

Mezzosoprano Madeleine Gray won new fans with her dramatic skills and power to project over the orchestra. Soprano Christina Lamberti's memorable debut proved especially compelling in her stunning "Libera me."

Winell also made an impressive debut, his bright high notes seeming surprisingly relaxed while he consistently displayed remarkable power. Sonorous baritone Shouvik Mondle once again summoned a kind of inspired "everyman" who pleaded our universal human case to God as eloquently as we are ever likely to hear.

Green maintained excellent balance between chorus and orchestra through the performance, achieving stunning effects, with orchestra and chorus pulling out all the stops to create a magnificent sound.

Helen Hayes Award

Congratulations to Bay Theatre Company and to Rena Cherry Brown, who won an Outstanding Lead Actress Helen Hayes Award for her performance in Bay's season opener, "Wit." Brown shared the award with Erica Sullivan, who was recognized for "Venus in Fur" at Studio Theatre.

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