Choral Music Review Print



The Spirit of Mozart Haunts Duke Chapel

February 11, 2006 - Durham, NC:


A packed house at Duke Chapel on Saturday night, February 11, experienced the spirit of Mozart via the influence of his genius projected through an unfinished work – Requiem – rendered in an inspired and moving performance. The concert was in memory of Dr. James H. Semans, pioneering surgeon and urologist, who, along with his wife, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, was involved in numerous arts and other charitable causes. He died at his Durham home less than a year ago at the age of 95.

The Duke Chapel Choir was superbly prepared by director Rodney Wynkoop. Most of the vocalists have sung this landmark work before, and Wynkoop has conducted it on previous occasions as well. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Requiem was not approached as an old standard to be done one more time but as something new, fresh and wondrous to be vividly brought to life on this occasion.

The orchestra traveled from the Winston-Salem-based North Carolina School of the Arts and delivered with enthusiasm and precision all the terror and charm that found its way into the score that was finalized after death took the quill from the still young composer's hand.

The outstanding soloists included soprano Penelope Jensen, well known in this area and far beyond for her mastery in oratorio and art song. Mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Green is a Metropolitan Opera National Auditions finalist who has received honors for her performance of art songs. Glenn Siebert, tenor, a graduate of Indiana University, has performed and recorded many operatic roles and has appeared with major symphony orchestras; he is currently on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Bass Jason McKinney, a recent graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, is earning impressive reviews wherever he sings; his performance left a haunting impression of the great Ezio Pinza in my ears.

Mozart died in the midst of composing the Requiem. Very little of it was actually completed and orchestrated. Some of it was sketched out in choral parts only, and elsewhere there were only themes and ideas, indicating something of the direction he intended. In the confusion of grief that followed his death on a cold and rainy day, somewhat like the day of this performance, Constanze, overwhelmed by debts, was very concerned about getting the score completed so that the commission would be paid. At least two and maybe three hands made efforts before the one who saw it to its completion, Mozart's pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. No one knows for sure what kind of notes Süssmayr may have used and discarded or what kinds of insights he may have gained from discussions with Mozart. One thing is quite clear: Süssmayr was not the composer his teacher was! Some passages are very uncharacteristic of Mozart, and indeed some compositional errors crept into the finished score. Still, the power, charm, and emotional language of Mozart pervade the music. Though many composers of note and well-informed scholars have sought to improve the score, Süssmayr's completion remains the most often-performed and recorded version of the Requiem. It is as though a soft lump of clay were left half-formed and once completed and performed it became fixed in our collective consciousness as "right." Yet in some ways the clay is still pliable – music differs from sculpture in this respect – and in the hands of an outstanding interpreter, the sounds are molded in such an artful manner that the genius of Mozart comes unmistakably alive in spite of Süssmayr's ineptness or any other dilemmas the score presents.

It was such a performance that we heard on this occasion, under the baton of Wynkoop. From the opening "Requiem aeternam" of the Introitus it was clear that something special was going on. Each phrase was developed and shaped with studied care. Each word was enunciated with clarity and precision. Each passage fit into the whole with purpose and meaning, and everything was conveyed with emotional intensity that was at times overwhelming. Tension and resolution reached from beyond the stars into the depth of the heart. It felt like prayer from beginning to end.

The Kyrie was crisp and precise, the melismas and fugal passages as clear as fine crystal. The Dies Irae was fiery and awesome, and the soft repeats in the treble and men's parts were as intense as the fiery opening – it was like the shape of Jesus' wrist in the Pieta. The solo and ensemble sections – Tuba Mirum and Recordarae – were like priests and acolytes processing with incense, intimately praying for all of us. McKinny's duet with the trombone was breathtaking. It should be noted here what a fine job was done by the soloists in the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra. Special accolades are deserved for the trombonist and the clarinetists. (Dean Thomas Clark, who was sitting in front of me, revealed that one of the clarinetists is still a high school student.)

The Rex Tremendae and the Sanctus were powerful and majestic hymns of praise. The Lacrymosa brought tears to my eyes, its lines and phrases shaped to perfection. The Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna brought the evening to a reverent close. When it was over, the audience sat in silence for nearly ten seconds, loath to break the spell of the magic of the performance. Then the applause burst forth from those who knew they had been in the presence of a genius whose spirit was alive in Duke Chapel on this wintry evening 250 years after his birth in Salzburg.