Baltimore Choral Arts Society marks 50 years with alleluias and a requiem

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Tom Hall, left, and Theodore Morrison backstage at Baltimore Choral Arts Society's 50th anniversary concert.

Returning to the venue where it all started, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society celebrated its 50th anniversary with a mix of the old and the new, the past and the present. And a sing-along.

A large crowd gathered Sunday afternoon at Kraushaar Auditorium for the concert, which featured several Alleluias -- the first, the a cappella one by Randall Thompson, affectingly sung by the choristers while standing along the walls of the hall -- and a Requiem.


The chorus, which developed quickly into one of the most valuable musical assets in the community, has only had two leaders in its half-century; both participated. Founding music director Theodore Morrison conducted an excerpt from "The Nativity" by his great friend, the late Norman Scribner, founder of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

Morrison and the Baltimore ensemble premiered the complete work in 1975. Sunday's sample, the gorgeous "We Saw Thee in Thy Balmy Nest" (some of the most compelling measures have a hint of Mahler in them), was shaped sensitively by Morrison, who drew subtle pianissimo singing from the ensemble. It was a highlight of the concert.


There was room, too, for some of Morrison's own music. The vividly harmonized, counterpoint-rich "Kyrie" and "Gloria" from his 1985 "Missa Brevis" again found the chorus responding sturdily.

The remainder of the concert was in the hands of Tom Hall, who has served as music director for a remarkable 34 years.

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In addition to Thompson's reflective "Alleluia" and a bouncier one by Bach, Hall led the premiere of "Hallelu Yah!" -- a propulsive, rhythmically taut piece by Baltimore-based composer James Lee III. The singers gave it a kinetic work-out.

For reasons I cannot entirely fathom, two local organizations reaching impressive milestones this year -- Choral Arts and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (100 years) -- decided to celebrate their long life spans by programming music about death.

The BSO has already performed the German Requiem by Brahms; Verdi's Requiem is yet to come. Choral Arts delivered Requiems by Faure and Durufle at the season's start; on Sunday, it was Mozart's turn.

Hall chose the fascinating completion of the Mozart Requiem done in 1991 by Robert Levin, who devised a persuasive alternative to the standard, if suspect, score finished by Franz Xaver Sussmayr shortly after the composer's untimely death.

Hall's lively tempos emphasized the music's drama, but allowed for considerable subtlety. The chorus offered a well-balanced tone, clean articulation and expressive warmth; the outbursts in the "Rex tremendae" passage had as much impact as the soft, tender phrasing in the "Agnus Dei."

The guest soloists -- soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo Krista River, tenor John Wesley Wright, bass-baritone Kevin Deas -- brought elegant, communicative phrasing to the performance. The orchestra, featuring many BSO players, also did strong work.


To close the concert, former Choral Arts members were invited to join the forces onstage for a  the "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah." Several audience members chimed in heartily as well.