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The Choral Society of Durham, along with the Duke Chorale, a total of around 175 voices, all under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, offered two liturgical works that are a bit off the beaten path for this concert in Duke Chapel.
The first offering was a Solemn Mass for two organs and choir by the French organist Louis Vierne. He was born with glaucoma and was essentially blind. It was decided to train him as an organist, which turned out to be fortunate. Vierne came to love the organ and, as he developed his skills, he advanced to become principal organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. For nearly 37 years he gave recitals until the clergy decided that recitals would no longer be allowed at the cathedral. Vierne was allowed to give one final program, on June 2nd, 1937. On that day, some 3,000 people had gathered to hear the last recital of the great organist of Notre Dame. He climbed the many steps to the loft with great difficulty. His doctor gave him pills to stimulate his heart. When the time came to start the recital, he barely could slip onto the organ bench. All the audience heard was a sustained B pedal note. The beloved organist had died exactly where he preferred.
Vierne composed six organ symphonies plus other works for organ and choir and chamber music. He studied harmony with César Franck, who gave him private tutelage without charge. That Vierne absorbed much from Franck's colorful harmonic palette is well demonstrated in the work we were privileged to hear in this concert, Messe Solennelle, Op, 16. It is scored for two organs and mixed chorus. The organists were David Cole, at the Kathleen Upton Byrns McClendon Organ (Aeolian, 1932), and Robert C. Parkins, University Organist, at the Benjamin N, Duke Memorial Organ (Flentrop, 1976). (The organs are described here.)
A bold and impassioned Kyrie, closing with a massive cadence, introduced the Mass. The Gloria is built on contrasts: organ and chorus, organs in call and response, and a four-part male voice sub-section, ending with another awesome cadenced Amen. The ethereal Sanctus lifted the music aloft and filled the sanctuary with more magnificent sounds. Mystical harmonies stood out in the Benedictus, and the mass ended with a lyrical soaring Agnus Dei, a personal plea for peace.
It took all the 175 voices amassed for this performance. And it took a conductor as tall as Wynkoop to keep this crowd and two organs together and focused on the power of this impressive work. Fortunately, all the resources necessary were right there, in Duke Chapel.
After an intermission, the chorus returned to the chancel for a performance of John Rutter's Requiem. It was written in 1985 and dedicated to the memory of his father who had died in 1983. Following the precedent established by Brahms and others, it is made up of a personal selection of texts, some taken from the Requiem Mass and some from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The seven sections of the work form an arch-like meditation on the meaning of life and death. Sections 1 and 7 are prayers on behalf of all humanity. Sections 2 and 6 are Psalms of comfort. Sections 3 and 5 are personal prayers to Christ. The central section, 4, is an affirmation of divine glory.
The accompaniment is available in two versions, one for medium-sized orchestra and the other for organ with six instruments. It was the second version that was performed on this occasion, with Cole at the organ along with Carla Burns, flute, Rosalind Leavell, cello, John Hanks, timpani, Jaren Atherholt, oboe, Jaquelyn Bartlett, harp, and Julia Thompson, percussion.
The soprano soloist was Katherine Waugh. She sang the solos in "Pie Jesu" and in "Lux Aeterna." Her pure, clear voice was a perfect fit in these passages.
The grand performances this evening call for a celebration of all who were involved in any way.
Rutter characterizes his Requiem as accessible, not elusive, and intimate rather than grand, contemplative rather than dramatic, consolatory rather than grim, and comforting rather than confronting. It is all these, and in a grand performance like what was heard this evening, it fills the longing spirit and soothes the aching heart in these troubling times.
The immediate response to the Requiem from the outset and its extraordinary ongoing popularity is evidence enough to be convinced that this is music we need and should celebrate.