Orchestral Music Review

NCSU Combined Choirs and Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra Present Excellent Haydn

November 22, 2009 - Raleigh, NC:

An admirable performance of the Adagio and the Allegro of Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D (1795) and the composer's famous Missa St.Bernard von Offida in B Flat ("Heiligmesse") brought obvious pleasure to the audience in Stewart Theatre, as the NC State University massed choirs and the orchestra showed off their considerable skills. Nathan Leaf, the young conductor of the choirs, and Randolph Foy, veteran conductor of the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, combined their skills to coax fine singing and playing from both organizations in this concert.

The opening work on the program, the first movement of Haydn's masterful Symphony 104, one of the best of the series of symphonies he composed in London in the last decade of the eighteenth century, revealed clearly the compositional techniques characteristic of Haydn's late orchestral works. In every way, Foy got an excellent performance from his players. But to be offered only a fragment of a major orchestral work by one of the world's magnificent composers is probably the most frustrating performance an audience can hear. I understand — I think — why Foy had to settle for presenting a fragment of this work when everyone in the house was ready to hear the complete work. But to understand this short-cut is no guarantee that the performance will please the audience, if my own negative reactions to Foy's choices suggest their displeasure with only a fourth of a symphony when they expected the complete work.

The Missa St. Bernard von Offida, known most frequently as the "Heiligmesse," was as satisfying to listeners as the abbreviated Symphony 104 was not. Leaf admirably kept his choral forces under control despite the fact that he was conducting the large NC State Chorale as well as the Women's Choir and the Men's Choir. Leaf knew exactly what musical responses he wanted from every singer on the stage. His exacting conducting technique made clear to all singers what they were required to do, resulting in effective choral dynamics, rich vocal color, beauty of tone, great levels of musical excitement, and precise diction and intonation, all of which made it clear to his audience that he was a choral conductor who knew what to ask for and usually got it. Especially admirable was his ability to insist on balance between sections, although the tenors, smallest in number of any group on the stage, were quite often overpowered by all the other sections.

The orchestra members too were aware of the need for balance between themselves and the singers. As a result, no group of instrumentalists covered up the vocal efforts of the sections, especially the tenors, who could easily have been buried under some overly-excited instrumentalists' power.

A brief review of the musical skills revealed by the choruses in each major section of this mass makes clear their consistent success. The Kyrie resounded with the vocal purity and quietness in many phrases as well as the brilliance which is quite obvious in the bigger, more powerful sections. In the highly-polyphonic Gloria, the most obviously effective tonal qualities were the spirit and the emotional power which are very dominant throughout the movement. However, the diction was not as clearly articulated in the phrases of this movement as it was in the Kyrie. The Credo was sung with great drama and satisfying power but also included frequent shadings of darkness and a complementary slow tempo when the death of Christ is fully portrayed. The fast-moving lines of the Sanctus demanded and received brilliant vocal treatment, but revealed a major flaw: the sopranos' descending phrases, which should be very clear, with each note distinct from the others, tended to be markedly smeared.  The final movement, the Agnus Dei, is magnificently brilliant music in which Haydn uses every compositional technique available to him to bring the Mass to a satisfying, exciting close.  The choruses, obviously fully aware of the composer's intentions and encouraged by their conductor's effort to draw from them all the musical strength they had left, ended the Mass with voices filled with well-controlled emotion. 

The soloists for this performance — Jessica Bowen, soprano, Jennifer Seiger, alto, Wade Henderson, tenor, and David Faircloth, bass — had well-trained, well-projected voices, and excellent ranges. Each singer, particularly Jennifer Bowen, had a warm powerful voice which easily reached every corner of the concert hall. But tenor Henderson, with his huge operatic voice, could overpower the three other soloists, and most of the time did so. Occasionally Leaf would rearrange the soloists to compensate for the size of Henderson's voice, but usually this did not work. Perhaps the biggest problem was the closeness of the soloists to the orchestra; most of the time the quartet was almost in the front-row players' laps.

Despite these criticisms, I must conclude with a statement of approval for all the singers and instrumentalists involved in this fine performance, especially the Missa St. Bernard von Offida. The conductors, Leaf and Foy, did their jobs with great professionalism. The singers and performers were obviously well trained, were good musicians, understood the music fully and cooperated with their conductors.  As a result, everyone in the hall left fully contented.