Choral Music Review Print



Duke Chorale: "Four Minor Masterpieces"

February 21, 2002 - Durham, NC:


The Duke Chorale filled Duke Chapel on February 21, 2002, with many beautiful phrases and effects in a program titled "Four Minor Masterpieces," These twentieth-century pieces, Bernstein's 1965 Chichester Psalms , Britten's 1943 Rejoice in the Lamb, Stravinsky's 1948 Mass, and Rutter's 1974 Gloria, are "minor" only in length (each around twenty minutes) and certainly not in their vocal and instrumental requirements.

Conductor Rodney Wynkoop, as usual, put together an intelligent, balanced program. Like bookends, the opening and closing works, Bernstein first - Rutter last, were the grand, more outgoing pieces, enclosing the quiet, more introspective ones, the sweetly meditative Britten and the sparely austere Stravinsky. Wynkoop also knowingly grouped the Bernstein and the Britten together on the first half, both having been commissioned by Dr. Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral. The Stravinsky and the Rutter also made a good pairing, each requiring an orchestra of woodwind, brass and percussion.

Wynkoop's keen focus on precision and dynamics was confidently and skillfully borne out in the Chorale's performances. These young voices communicated the joy of singing and an understanding of the texts, urged on by Wynkoop's phenomenal intensity and exuberance.

Music in Duke Chapel is always a chancy proposition, dependent entirely on the pieces' suitability for the echo and reverberation of that huge space. All of these works originally were composed to be sung in such a space, so the overall success of the concert was high. As usual, it was often difficult to hear the text clearly, the organ and the brass instruments overshadowing the singers in the bigger moments. But the dividends in ethereal wafts of melody and roof-rattling climaxes more than made up for a few minuses.

Things started off badly at first. The opening movement of the "Chichester Psalms," with its fast-clipped syncopations bouncing back over succeeding lines , was dominated by the organ and percussion, the choir distant-sounding, the whole texture smeary. Then, miraculously, the atmosphere changed with the haunting second movement. Boy soprano Jacob Boehm movingly floated the haunting melody and the choir's homogenous purity soared effortlessly into the air. David Arcus's playing of the prelude of the third movement almost made one forget that the piece is originally scored for orchestra, although Emily Laurance's delicate harp accompaniment helped in that regard. Wynkoop's tempo for the hushed serenity of this movement gave the singing a palpable emotional impact.

"Rejoice in the Lamb" is a rarity in that it successfully combines humor and religion. The text is from a poem by Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century writer who wrote while in an insane asylum. Britten selected charming excerpts about Smart's cat Jeoffry, a female mouse and various officers of the law to go along with imaginative references to flowers and musical instruments. Britten's music is alternately whimsical and uplifting, the final Hallelujah a glorious, leaping melody.

The chorus was especially adept in the hushed phrases of the opening section and the waves of sound in the section on the instruments. Soprano Jeanne Ennis and alto Diane Basgall Thornton had firm, clear solos, while tenor Perry Smith and bass Mark Graves were more soft-edged, thus less effective. The original scoring for the work is for male choir with organ and percussion. Here Wynkoop chose to use a mixed choir and leave off the percussion, the results, however, equally effective.

Stravinsky wrote his "Mass" as an antidote to those scores, such as by Mozart and Verdi, which he felt were too rococo and operatic. Influenced by the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, the piece is compact, low-key and solemn. Its chant-like phrasing and harmonies are cool and unhurried. For this piece, Wynkoop used the smaller Chamber Choir of the Chorale, impressive in their firm handling of the difficult rhythms in the Credo and the otherworldly tones of the Agnus Dei. The five soloists sang from within the choir, soprano Kristen Blackman and alto Naseem Nixon most notable in their blend during the ritualistic Gloria. Wynkoop kept the brass and woodwind orchestra muted and supportive.

The sound picture was beautifully balanced, in part because their was no organ.

John Rutter has made quite a name for himself in the realm of sacred choral music. His compositions are popular, their melodiousness and theatricality adding appeal. His "Gloria" is a bravura piece, employing arresting effects from the trumpets, trombones, tuba, percussion and organ which accompany the singers. Even though some sections bring to mind Hollywood religious epics, the work is undeniably exciting and affecting. Here the Chorale came off somewhat underpowered in the big moments, the instruments taking the spotlight. A larger group of more mature voices is ideally necessary for this piece but the acoustics are partially to blame, making the orchestra more "live" than it should be. Nonetheless, Wynkoop led a big-scaled, heaven-storming account, to which the audience responded with intense enthusiasm, ending an evening of rewarding musicianship and interpretation.