The Cape Fear Chorale made the first of its appearances this season in a program featuring the Mass in C of Beethoven. Two other shorter works were presented as well.
Led by its director, Jerry Cribbs, the chorale began the concert with "Hear My Prayer," by Mendelssohn. This compact, 10 minute work is by turns lyrical, fervent, and meditative. Nancy King sang the soprano solo part with beautiful tone and phrasing; she also sang with the sopranos in the choral passages, lending her substantial sound to that section. The power of the chorus was, nonetheless, something of a surprise. This listener has heard previous performances by the group, and the difference here was striking. The resonance had substantially enhanced strength and force, and the impact of the climaxes was quite strong. That helped underline the large progression of moods very successfully. Another strength was the balance between the soloist and the chorus, which allowed them to complement one another effectively.
The following piece was the Overture to Saul, by Handel. This three-part instrumental work was the least successful on the program. Part of the problem was in the instrumental balance of the afternoon’s ensemble. The 25-piece orchestra – which played with a strong, bright sound – included some of the best players in the Wilmington area. But that could not compensate for the fact that the strings were way overbalanced by the winds. There is not much to be done about that, given the size of the space available in the church for the instruments. Perhaps, given the physical setting, purely instrumental music, especially with strings, is not the best programming choice. The other problem was that the tempi felt held back. The two outer sections are allegro, but the restrained speeds reduced the contrast with the larghetto middle section and made the phrasing tend to sound segmented. An asset to the performance was the precision in ensemble and entrances, a hallmark of Mr. Cribbs as a conductor.
The concluding piece on the program, and its main work, was the Beethoven Mass. It was a pleasure to hear this piece, which tends to be overshadowed by Beethoven’s later – and extraordinary – Missa Solemnis. This work, and its performance, offered a good deal of strong music. The opening Kyrie started right off with good phrasing and dynamic shaping. The following Gloria captured the needed celebratory quality. The brass had a chance to shine here, as in several other sections, and their bright sound was effective, even stirring. In the Quoniam section, some of the slower, beat-oriented character mentioned in the Handel came up again. The beginning of the Credo also could have stood more momentum. A minute later, however, the sharp rhythms and accents were convincing and dramatic.
The start of the Sanctus was gentle and evocative; Mr. Cribbs tends to be especially successful with lyrical music, and the orchestra showed its expressive strength here as well. Another place where the orchestra stood out was in the finely-rendered clarinet solos of the following Agnus Dei. The magnificent ending of this movement, and the mass, reaches a point of peace, well-projected by the entire ensemble.
Besides the full chorus, there was a quartet of soloists, with Nancy King returning and standing out as soprano. The soloists phrased well together, but were a bit uneven vocally, with one of the soloists noticeably less resonant than the others, and pitches not always firmly centered. That said, this was overall a successful performance of a less-heard major work, offering a good deal of expressive strength and effective high points.