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How appropriate that a requiem mass be performed on All Saints Day, and in the spaciousness of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. And how appropriate that the East Carolina University Chamber Singers was the ensemble singing the mass, and that the mass performed was one of the best known in the entire choral repertoire, Mozart's Requiem, K. 626 — given in Süssmayr's completed version.
Under the direction of Daniel Bara, the 44-voice ensemble, augmented by the ECU Symphony Orchestra, gave a highly polished reading of the Requiem. Ten different soloists were featured, and one came away from the experience forgetting that these are college-age singers, so expertly prepared, skilled and talented as they are.
Those familiar with Mozart's Requiem know that this piece is at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from, say, the gorgeous delicacy of Fauré's Requiem or the grandeur of Brahms' German Requiem. This composition is full-blooded, even scary at times, and requires a variety of moods and feelings from the performers, ranging from reverent awe to anguished tension. Bara and his singers captured these moods well. He also did not allow the singers to soften or slow down their approach to the music. The devilishly fast "Kyrie," for example, with its multiple entrances and melody lines rollicked right along, and it was interesting to "watch" the music in this and other movements, as the singers bobbed their heads and bodies in time.
Soprano Erin O'Leary had the opening and closing solos ("Requiem aeternam" and "Lux aeterna") as well as the soprano part in the "Recordare, Jesu pie" quartet, and she offered strong, assured readings, with just enough vibrato. Among other individual highlights were bass Harris Ipock, both by himself and as part of the "Tuba mirum" quartet, which was introduced by a wonderfully warm horn solo by Jesse Rackley, and alto Nicole House and soprano Jessica Laliberte, who combined for a lovely blend in "Benedictus" before being joined by Ipock and tenor Tim Messina.
As an ensemble, the real strength of this year's group seems to lie with the female voices, as shown in the "salve me" point-counterpoint lines with the men in the "Rex tremendae majestatis" portion, and the angelic "voca me" part of the "confutatis" portion. But at other times, the male voices produced a wonderful sound in their own right, most notably in the fugues. And the group blended almost into a single powerful voice in the emphatically-sung unison passages.
The singers' dynamics varied nicely throughout the work, and the entrances and cutoffs were precise. Diction was good (the Latin text is not easy to sing), but the hardness of the St. Paul's interior occasionally turned the choral sound into a condensed knot that was swallowed up to the tall ceiling, such that the listener occasionally was aware of faint remnants of a previous musical phrase lingering on top of the current notes. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find a live performance done any better. Bara had full command of the material, the choir and the orchestra, which provided the appropriate accompaniment from start to finish. Brass and winds sounded fine, and the strings blended well with voices.
As they showed on their first compact disc last year, the ECU Chamber Singers possess a maturity of vocal sound and texture that would rival many, much older choral ensembles. The quality of the ECU music program is well known, of course, and for good reason, but the ability to attract such top-level singers is quite a plus when assembling a group to perform so consistently well several times a year.
The strings of the ECU orchestra opened the program with two modern-day pieces by Brazilian composers: "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 9 for string orchestra, by Villa-Lobos, and "Desafio I" for viola and string orchestra, Op. 31/1 (1968), by Marlos Nobre. The conductor was Jorge Richter.
The ninth "Bachianas Brasileiras" is a composition among a series of pieces scored for a variety of instrumental arrangements (one is for eight cellos and soprano). The ninth piece is brief, with a romantic, lush prelude that opens into a fugue with a brisk, lively tempo. Attacks were firm, not sluggish, with a brief pitch problem in the basses at the outset of the fugue. Yet the bass section also provided a fine unison playing that led to a second fugue passage, followed by a more lush scoring, and all players came together for a strong unison passage at the end.
Melissa Reardon, a viola professor at ECU and member of the Enso String Quartet, was the soloist in Nobre's "Desafio," a piece that opens with a somber feel and double-stopped phrasing in the solo instrument. A nice little run recalled "The Lark Ascending" before the piece moved into really tense scoring, and the strings later provided a near-buzzing accompaniment behind Reardon at one point.
Reardon played well throughout, and the strings provided an excellent range of dynamics to accompany her, coming to the softest closing of the first movement and intensifying into a crescendo at the beginning of the second movement. Although the piece is part of the contemporary literature, it is not avant-garde. "Desafio" is quite listenable, though it ends abruptly, unexpectedly, way too soon.