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Rodney Wynkoop pretty much dominates the Durham choral music scene as director of the Choral Society of Durham (CSD), the Duke Chapel Choir, and the Duke University Chorale plus their associated chamber ensembles. Friday's concert in Duke Chapel featured the Duke University Chorale performing Mozart's Vesperae Solemnes de Confessore, K.339. The Chamber Choir of the Duke University Chorale joined the Chamber Choir of the CSD for Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in g minor for double chorus. Then the whole crew teamed up for Handel's seldom performed eight-voice Dixit Dominus. (Please refer to this paragraph as a score card; we're not going to sort out the players again.)
The program began with the Mozart Vespers, a delightful, lively setting of a liturgical ceremony that, oddly, never got much musical attention over the centuries. Mozart set five of the six movements in modified ternary form, returning in the doxology that ends each psalm (the Gloria Patri ) to music from the beginning, or near the beginning, of the movement. With the exception of the "Laudate Dominum" movement, it's a pretty zippy piece, and Wynkoop took it accordingly. The problem was that the Chapel acoustics simply don't allow for the crisp delivery the music requires, and the performance sounded rushed and blurred. Although the Vespers features a quartet of soloists, the real star is the soprano, particularly in the aria with chorus, "Laudate Dominum." Soprano Kristen Blackman was a pleasure to listen to; she has a lovely, expressive voice, and Wynkoop, rightfully, used her again in the Handel, although he could have chosen a more mature singer from the ranks of the CSD Chamber Choir.
Duke Chapel is really designed for music like the Vaughan Williams Mass. This a cappella work harks back to the sixteenth century in style, although with more modern harmony and less complex counterpoint. The relaxed tempo of all five mass movements and their sub-sections allows for adequate reverberation, and when a chorus is so smoothly blended, the effect is ethereal.
After intermission, came the Dixit Dominus. This is an extremely difficult work to bring off. An early work, written in Italy when Handel was only 22, its intricate counterpoint bears little resemblance to the choral writing of the later oratorio style. Of course, the tone painting is still there as in the hammering marcato setting of the words " conquassabit capita in terra multorum " (He will shatter the heads of the multitudes). The array of choral textures is stunning: double counterpoint, cantus firmus style, antiphonal singing, a fugue on two subjects - even a lick in the final "Amen" fugue that sounds like an opera singer's vocal exercise. You can hear the influence of Vivaldi all over this piece.
It was interesting to hear two versions of the same text; the first of the six movements of the Mozart Vespers is the same as the entire Handel setting. You could hardly avoid noticing how one composer expanded on every word, while the other seems to have cared about little else than creating elegant, galant music. The Magnificat that concludes the Vespers , for example, becomes a jumble of words that in no way relates to the structure of the text.
Once again, the Chapel acoustics blurred the contrapuntal subtleties of the Handel, and from where we were seated, the chorus seemed unbalanced, with sopranos and tenors - of all things - overpowering the altos and basses. The solos and small ensemble settings, particularly Blackman's and countertenor Brad Fugate's arias, were beautifully rendered.
The bottom line for music in the Chapel is to conscientiously separate every note, no matter how legato the line is supposed to sound. And, if given a choice, perform in Baldwin and ask the audience to close their eyes.