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Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Concert Artists of Baltimore launch their seasons

Last weekend saw two more entries in Baltimore's 2013-14 music season, each yielding rewards.

Saturday night at the Gordon Center, Concert Artists of Baltimore offered an unusual pairing -- Schubert on the first half, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev on the second.

If there was a secret to the combination, artistic director Edward Polochick didn't make it clear in his lengthy, sometimes fuzzy remarks woven throughout the evening (like most of us, he could use an editor). What mattered in the end, though, was all the stylish music-making.

At the start of the evening, Polochick led the instrumental component of Concert Artists in an eloquent account of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. I missed the sound of a full-sized orchestra at times, but the players poured on the lyricism for this bittersweet masterpiece, and the hall's exceptional acoustics provided a boost.

Backed solidly by the strings, the chorus sang Schubert's compact, richly lyrical Mass in G with a well-balanced tone and polished articulation. The three singers who stepped out of the ensemble for the solos -- soprano Sarah Berger, tenor Joshua Glassman, baritone Rob McGinness -- acquitted themselves admirably, phrasing the "Benedictus," in particular, with poetic warmth.

Any opportunity to hear even a snippet of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, a sublime, richly harmonized work for a cappella chorus, is welcome. Polochick led the chorus in three selections.

There were no truly subterranean basses in the group to provide the kind of tonal foundation that great Russian choirs typically provide, and there was some slippery intonation, mostly in the "Hymn to the Mother of God." But there was quite a lush sound and nuanced phrasing to match from the Concert Artists choristers, reaching an expressive peak in "Blessed is the Man."

For something completely different, the program closed with Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the dazzlers in the repertoire, as much for its technical fireworks as for its passionate melodies that exert an irresistible pull.

Mark Markham, one of the Peabody Conservatory's most accomplished alums, was the soloist. He did not produce the biggest tone or tackle the tricky stuff with the brightest flash, but he still produced an effective amount of steel and sparkle. The pianist, who has a flair for jazz, also brought out elements in the score that suddenly sounded as if they could have come from Gershwin's pen.

Polochick provided taut rapport from the podium. The chamber size of the orchestra was more of an issue here than in the Schubert; this music calls out for a richer texture. But, once again, the ensemble compensated with dynamic musicality, from the opening clarinet solo (David Drosinos) through the exhilarating close. 

For its season-opener, Baltimore Choral Arts Society presented one of the glories of Western culture, Bach's B minor Mass, which combines contrapuntal complexity with straightforward faith and a wide embrace of humanity.

The event on Sunday afternoon drew a large crowd to Kraushaar Auditorium, which, unfortunately, does not offer any great acoustical advantage.

The dryness of the sound limited some of the performance's impact, especially at climactic points. There were a few other drawbacks, including occasional pitch discrepancies and issues of balance or articulation in the choir (soprano lines, in particular, could have used more presence).

That said, Bach's inspired music still emerged quite effectively. Tom Hall conducted with an appreciation for the many dancing rhythms in the score, but didn't push the point, and he allowed plenty of spaciousness in the most tender, inward portions.

Highlights included the stirring rise in tension and expressive force from chorus and orchestra alike in the "Gratias agimus tibi" section of the Gloria; the soft, poignant singing in the "Et incarnatus est" and "Crucifixus" passages of the Credo; and the noble phrasing by all concerned in the closing "Dona nobis pacem."

The guest soloists provided a good deal of sensitivity. Soprano Hyunah Yu and tenor John Wesley Wright sang the "Domine Deus" duet with particular charm, matched measure for measure by flutist Kristin Winter Jones. In the "Benedictus," Wright relied on falsetto, but the elegance in his singing hit home.

Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and baritone Kevin Deas also brought much to the table. Soprano Nola Richardson completed the solo lineup nicely.

The orchestra, which included many Baltimore Symphony members, did generally sturdy work. Contributions from concertmaster Kenneth Goldstein, oboist Jane Marvine and cellist Kristin Ostling proved valuable.


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