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The North Carolina Master Chorale, under the direction of Alfred Sturgis is celebrating 75 years of symphonic choral excellence. They performed in Meymandi Concert Hall presenting a concert titled Motus Missae, which consisted of the five movements of the ordinary of the mass, each by a different composer, plus a contemporary setting of Te Deum to top it off. Thus we were treated to a survey of Mass music as well as a history of music covering three centuries.
The program opened with the Kyrie from the Mass in C minor ("the Great") by Mozart. Of the 17 masses he wrote, this was his most ambitious. It is dramatic and operatic in character. The pomp and solemnity is enhanced by the addition of trombones and soprano solos. The Master Chorale, well known for their precise and crisp singing, were on the mark in their performance today. The lovely soprano solo was sung by Sara Abernethy. Her pure and steady voice was ideal for this selection.
The Gloria of the mass was taken from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which is known for the demands it places on singers and instrumentalists: outlandish vocal range, difficult intervals, challenging runs, and frequent tempo and dynamic changes. Under Sturgis' clear and no-nonsense conducting the choir and orchestra delivered a powerful performance. Four soloists from the choir added contrasting texture marvelously. They were Erica Jackson, soprano; Evelyn McCauley, alto; Kenneth Jones, tenor; and Ted Dougherty, bass.
Bach's Mass in B minor contributed a truncated Credo, using three of the nine movements of Bach's setting. The "Credo in unum Deum," Bach's magnificent fugal statement of faith, was somewhat subdued, perhaps to provide some contrast from the Beethoven Gloria. "Patrem omnipotentem" and "Et exspecto resurrectionem" were marvelous with their sense of excitement and joy.
The Sanctus from Maurice Duruflé's Requiem provided calm and peaceful comfort. It was composed in 1947 and uses thematic material based on Gregorian Chant melodies, it has been a choral favorite since its premiere. The rich sound of 170 well-trained and focused voices singing music like this is an awesome treat.
The Motus Missae concluded with music of Igor Stravinsky, who in his choral compositions teaches us to hear the lyrics in a new way. The Agnus Dei is from his Mass composed in the mid-forties. It is scored for mixed chorus and an ensemble of wind instruments comprised of oboes, cor anglais, bassoons, trumpets, and trombones. The emphasis is on the clarity of words rather than on the interpretation of meaning. The harmonies are anti-Romantic which is consistent with this period in Stravinsky's career. The Agnus Dei contains homophonic choral statements alternating with instrumental interludes. It is brief, but presents the familiar text in a manner that invites us to see it differently. The Master Chorale and the orchestra handled the strange sounding harmonies like old friends.
After an intermission came a performance of former rock musician, Karl Jenkins' setting of the ancient hymn of praise dating back to at least the fourth century – Te Deum. The orchestra establishes a strong march theme reinforced by bass drum and tympani. Trumpets ad exuberant fanfares throughout this section. The chorus and orchestra alternate the spotlight. At the words "Te ergo quӕsumus" the mood changes to a reverent hymn with lovely trumpet obbligato. At "Ӕterna fac" the mood changes to a jaunty march, and at "Miserere nostri" a triumphal march leads to a hymn of praise and then to a triumphal reprise of the opening "Te Deum laudámus." It was a very fine performance with well-balanced and precise playing and singing. The excellent trumpet solo work was provided by Timothy Stewart, Alexander Fioto and Van Zimmerman.
The concert concluded with several former members of the North Carolina Master Chorale joining the current chorus on stage for a rousing performance of "Hallelujah" from Beethoven's early oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives.
It was a very interesting and enjoyable concert and a wonderful tribute to 75 years of making marvelous choral music enriching our community.