Choral Music Review



Massive Masses

April 8, 2008 - Cary, NC:


Like the area's population, the area's major choruses are growing in size and start to approach unmanageable numbers. The Concert Singers of Cary (CSC), which presented Saturday's concert under their Artistic Director and Conductor Lawrence Speakman, is 170+ strong, and even its Chamber Choir nears 60. A chronic shortage of tenors has plagued the CSC from the start, causing an imbalance that can only be corrected by either recruiting more tenors or paring down the other sections. As a community chorus, CSC is between a rock and a hard place since civic musical organizations play the dual roles of serving the community's audience for good music as well as the community's musicians as a place to enjoy making music.

The evening was devoted to two masses from the opposite ends of the spectrum of this genre: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's (1525-94) Missa Papae Marcelli and Franz Joseph Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass. The first was composed within the strictures of model 16th-century counterpoint under the rigid and restrictive dicta of the post-Council of Trent Catholic Church; the second is concerted, with soloists and orchestra as had become the custom for high celebratory masses some 200 years later. For the Haydn, the chorus was accompanied by members of the ECU Symphony Orchestra, for whom Speakman currently serves as assistant conductor.

Not entirely supported legend has it that Palestrina started composing his famous Missa Papae Marcelli, the most famous of his 104 masses, during the three-week-reign of Pope Marcellus II, who called together the singers of the papal chapel on Good Friday 1555, the third day of his reign, to inform them that the music for Holy Week should be more in keeping with the solemn character of the occasion and that the words should be clearly understood. Palestrina ostensibly composed the Mass with significant passages in note-against-note counterpoint to illustrate how polyphonic music can still make the text intelligible. The chamber choir sang with great precision and good balance, but Speakman's approach recalled the early music interpretations of the mid-20th century, with rigid tempi and minimal dynamic changes. Rather than matching dynamics to the text, he persisted in a uniform mezzo forte, even for such acclamations as "Gloria in excelsis" and the "Hosanna."

As an added bonus, between the two masses, Speakman led the strings in Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, a work he had recently conducted with the same string players at ECU. Unfortunately, a nice performance was marred by a serious flaw in the hall. While the acoustics are potentially satisfactory, the hall has a noisy ventilation system. Throughout the Adagio, the pianissimo passages were drowned out by the rumbling A.C., sounding like a passing freight train.

After the austere Palestrina, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, with four soloists and accompanied by strings, three trumpets and organ, sounded like grand opera. Back from his visits to London and exposure to its robust choirs and Handel's dramatic oratorios, Haydn expanded the resources for his own late masses and especially the oratorio The Creation. The chorus, while well-controlled and precise, sounded unbalanced, with the tenors often nearly inaudible. Of the soloists, baritone William Adams has a full, resonant voice in the upper range but had to strain in the low register; the Mass really needs a basso to do it justice. Tenor Timothy Sparks's full voice and outstanding diction are familiar to area audiences; he did not disappoint on this occasion. But alto Peijung Zhu was the star of the evening; she has a wonderfully clear voice with precise intonation, good projection and good diction – a combination hard to beat. Weakest by far was soprano Elizabeth LaBelle, whose voice lacks resonance; her excessive vibrato and unstable pitch were in sharp contrast to the other soloists.

The accompanying strings were obviously well rehearsed, except in the Benedictus, where the violin section suddenly morphed into eight separate violins. The trumpets were a bit overenthusiastic in places, drowning out even the big chorus.

Speakman should be commended for the interesting programming. The juxtaposition of the two masses made not only for an enjoyable concert, but also gave a concrete example in the development of choral style over a 250-year period.