Baltimore choral groups shine in spiritual programs

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Two choral groups in Baltimore offered music of hope and solace just when the city needed it most.

Goings-on in the temporal world -- in Baltimore and beyond -- have been so dispiriting lately that it was a relief to spend time over the weekend with Baltimore's premier choruses and heaven-directed music.

On Saturday night at St. Ignatius Church, right around the time that some Freddie Gray protesters were erupting into a destructive confrontation with police and property not all that far away, the Handel Choir of Baltimore was intoning Arvo Part's contemplative Berliner Messe (Berln Mass).

Some of the lines in the "Veni, Sancte Spiritus" movement could not help but take on an extra layer under the circumstances: "In heat, temperance; in tears, solace; heal that which is wounded; bend that which is inflexible ... correct what goes astray." And, of course, there was the concluding supplication of the Mass, "grant us peace."

This Mass from 1990 is a great example of Part's fascinating musical language -- sometimes neo-baroque, sometimes neo-romantic, with hints of minimalist idioms, all emerging in a strikingly individualistic way.

The piece received an admirable performance, led by Handel Choir artistic director Arian Khaefi, a conductor of considerable musicality and subtlety.

His sensitive approach drew well-balanced, expressively nuanced singing from the chorus (and soloists within it); the sweetness of the sound and the legato phrasing as the angular melodic lines of the Agnus Dei unfolded cast quite a spell.

The strings of the Handel Period Instrument Orchestra -- an apt ensemble for the age-old resonances in Part's music -- added much to the Mass. The ensemble also provided supple, colorful support in baroque works that formed the first half of the program.

Vivaldi's popular "Gloria," shaped with an ear for inner details by Khaefi, found the choir in technically poised, expressively vibrant form. Guest soloists made valuable contributions -- mezzo Sarah Davis; and sopranos Emily Noel and Sarah Berger, whose light and lithe singing in the "Laudamus te" was a highlight.

Those sopranos also blended beautifully in the "De torrente" section of Handel's "Dixit Dominus," a work that benefited from vivid solos by Davis, tenor Jason Rylander and bass Brendan Curran. For their part, the choristers sounded impressive, nowhere more so than in their crisp, dynamic articulation of the "Judicabit" passage.

The concert provided a notable close to the Handel Choir's 80th season. It affirmed how strongly  Khaefi, in his two seasons at the helm, has built upon the crucial work of his predecessor Melinda O'Neal, continuing to hone the ensemble and expand the repertoire. He has helped to make the ensemble even more flexible, repertoire-wise -- Part's Berliner Messe being the latest case in point.

By a coincidence of scheduling, music by Part also figured in the final program of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's 49th season Sunday afternoon at Goucher College. This concert, too, could not have been more timely, given local events -- the program's theme was "Quest for Peace."

Choral Arts artistic director Tom Hall referenced the troubles the night before in remarks to the audience (there was applause when he noted that most of the demonstrators in Baltimore had been peaceful), but this program, unfortunately, would be timely any day of the year, any place on the planet.

Kraushaar Auditorium worked against this terrific collection of 20th- and 21st-century works. A loud fan noise competed with every pianissimo from the stage in this already acoustically-challenged venue, but the effectiveness of the music-making came through consistently.

The afternoon opened with "Fear Not, Dear Friend," an a cappella setting of the bittersweet Robert Lewis Stevenson sonnet by Jake Runestad.  This not-yet-30 composer, who earned a graduate degree at Peabody Conservatory studying with Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts, has a gift for writing music of considerable freshness and communicative impact in a tonal idiom.

"Fear Not" is a melodically and harmonically gorgeous example (the lyrical style suggests something of Randall Thompson in its DNA); the piece, co-commissioned by Choral Arts and receiving its local premiere at this event, says a lot in a short time. Hall coaxed a warm, finely shaded account; the ensemble's gentle decrescendo on the phrase "down the sunlit ways" proved especially telling.

It was great to hear Part's "Da pacem Domine" with the sound of his Berliner Messe still in my ears from the night before. This brief prayer, with its slowly unfolding harmonic blocks, can make a haunting effect, as it did here, aided by the finesse of the choristers' articulation, the warmth of their tone.

In an often similar vein -- fugal animation and some forceful outbursts occur along the way -- is "Dona nobis pacem" by Peteris Vasks.

Hall deftly drew out the score's emotional content and, once again, had his singers going deep into the notes. The pianissimo singing, starting in the basses to usher in the closing portion of the piece, was but one example of the group's impressive work. There was strongly focused playing by the orchestra, too.

The concert closed with the extraordinary anti-war manifesto by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Dona nobis pacem," which weaves refrains of that Latin prayer through settings of vivid Walt Whitman texts. Hall led a taut, absorbing performance.    

The chorus rose to the challenge, maintaining tonal smoothness and clarity of line. The bold attacks in the last verse of "Beat! Beat! Drums!" were as compelling as the gentle phrasing of "My heart gives you love" at the close of "Dirge for Two Veterans."

Soprano Hyunah Yu delivered her solos with great intensity. Aside from some upper register strain, baritone Robert Cantrell sang firmly and eloquently. The orchestra, augmented by pianist Leo Wanenchak, did supple work; concertmaster Ken Goldstein's solo contributions left an elegant mark.

Like the Handel Choir, the Choral Arts Society wrapped up its season delivering important, thought-provoking, spirit-moving music in style.      

 

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