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For the closing concert of the Choral Society of Durham's season, the ensemble was joined en masse by the Duke Chapel Choir, the Riverside High School Chorus Singers, the North Carolina Boychoir and Girls Choir, and the Orchestra Pro Cantores. Their combined sound was as immense and powerful as you might expect, amplified even more by the resonant acoustics in the Duke Chapel. Typically, concerts performed in Duke Chapel have a certain ambience unlike any other. With an extremely live and vibrant sound combined with the solemn cathedral-like environment; this concert was no exception, and the audience was packed. The program consisted of two choral masterworks from French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Berlioz and Poulenc. The connection here between Berlioz's Te Deum and Poulenc's Gloria was that, despite being written 110 years apart, the two works feature sacred Latin text revamped for a rather grandiose secular setting.
Poulenc's Gloria, a more modern and brief exultation of praise compared to the latter work in this concert, was first performed in 1961. It is lighthearted, with an air of mystery created through unusual harmonies and somewhat unpredictable melodic lines. The first movement, "Gloria in excelsis Deo," begins with Neoclassical-like fanfare, not surprisingly led by the brass section of the orchestra. The brass leads the way through the second movement, too, with the most playful material of the work; though having met some scandal, this movement is specifically inspired by a 15th-century Gozzoli fresco, and depicts the painting's mischievous cherubim. It is perhaps in these moments where the juxtaposition of sacred and secular is the most apparent.
Soprano soloist Mary Wilson was featured in the third movement ("Domine Deus, Rex caelestis"), with a brilliant tone that blended well with the rest of the choir when appropriate, but also beautifully rose above the surrounding texture at other times. This exploration of textures was quite compelling in the chapel. The fourth movement, "Domine fili unigenite," contains some of the most intricate melodies, with many simultaneous moving parts – performed excellently by the orchestra. Poulenc's "modern" style appears strongly in the fifth movement, with expressive, sweeping strings and an unusual melodic contour in Wilson's soprano solo. The sixth and concluding movement featured all-encompassing, piercing sound, juxtaposed with unaccompanied choral phrases to the final "Amen."
The performance of the Berlioz was decidedly more viscerally powerful, at least, with the inclusion of the Chapel's 1932 Aeolian organ. Duke Chapel organist Christopher Jacobson played the organ's four manuals (6,600 pipes); the lowest notes are incredibly resonant and can literally be felt physically. This Te Deum dwells on the juxtaposition of organ and orchestra, as the two forces often exchange chords (such as the opening measures) or phrases. Of course, when these two are combined, the result is wondrous. The first significant instance of this occurs in the second movement "Tibi omnes," where a huge, crashing chord occurs just before the tenors and basses of the chorus enter unaccompanied on three parallel phrases beginning with "Te gloriosus," "Te Prophetarum," and "Te Martyrum."
There were only a few solo moments featuring the children's choir, most notable in the first movement with their clear, plainchant-like melody. Conductor Rodney Wynkoop led the huge group of musicians with much success, though his specific gestures were difficult to see from the audience due to the flat nature of the chapel's seating.
Compared to the Poulenc, Berlioz's Te Deum is decidedly more reverent and less boisterous. However, it is filled with dense fugues that the mass chorus attacked with gusto. The fifth movement contains tenor soloist Wade Henderson's lone aria, sung in a wonderfully grounded yet unlabored manner. The ending of this movement contains, in my opinion, one of the most dramatically compelling moments of the work – the extremely hushed chorus sings unaccompanied and the effect is chilling. The work closes with the monstrous and somewhat terrifying "Judex crederis," where a chant-based foundation anxiously grows through dynamic expansion of repeated motifs. In this performance, the conclusion was quite successful, with satisfying cymbal crashes and a texture brimming with fervor.