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Choral Music Review

Into the Light - Ancient Chant in Modern Dress

April 19, 2002 - Durham, NC:

Duke Chapel - the name conjures up the grandeur and majesty that it so richly deserves. It is a magnificent spectacle, the centerpiece of the Duke University campus, and one of the "must-see" tourist attractions for any visitor to this area. Unfortunately, the visual splendor and sense of calm and peace that overtake you as you enter the imposing entrance does not always translate into a satisfying musical experience. The 5-6 second reverberation makes most performances that require pronounced articulation and distinction of instrumental parts futile attempts. However, there are some works whose compositional style and character are ideally suited for such an acoustical environment.

The April 19 performance by the Duke Chapel Choir, under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, was such an evening. Rarely has there been such a wonderful fit of singers, text, orchestration, and venue as Maurice Duruflé's Requiem and Morton Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. Ironically, this was perhaps the most poorly attended choral event with orchestra at Duke Chapel that I have witnessed.

Maurice Duruflé (1902-86) wrote his Requiem, Op. 9, in 1947 on commission from the French publishing company Durand. At the time he had already begun to write an organ suite based on Gregorian chant themes so Duruflé blended that work into the newly commissioned one. There are three distinct orchestrations, all prepared by the composer: original large orchestra, a virtuoso solo organ accompaniment, and finally the one heard at this performance for reduced orchestra and an independent organ part. This work is based on Gregorian chant melodies and rhythms, and the more you were able to understand and recognize these ancient tunes, the greater was your the appreciation of the performance. It was in this spirit that Wynkoop gave some preparatory remarks and his own singing to illustrate the chants that serve as the basis of the work. He sang the original chants from each of the nine movements and had the entire ensemble play brief excerpts before the actual start of the work. This, in conjunction with the beautifully presented and written program notes, was a wonderful introduction and I'm sure aided in the understanding and enjoyment of the performance. He also remarked on what an ideal fit this Requiem, and the Lauridsen that followed it, was with the Chapel.

The orchestra for the Duruflé included strings, harp, organ, timpani and three trumpets and consisted of some of the finest musicians in the Triangle area. In addition to the chorus, there was also a baritone and mezzo-soprano soloist, both used sparingly. Those who have not heard this work must, for it is, simply put, one glorious and beautiful creation. This performance was masterful. The balance between the chorus, orchestra and organ was handled with great skill and sensitivity. It would be hard to pick out a highlight, but the duet between mezzo-soprano soloist Mary Gayle Greene and principal cellist Jonathan Kramer in the "Pie Jesu" was especially memorable. The baritone soloist was William Adams, of Elon University.

While not as common in the classical music world as other disciplines, occasionally some composer, composition, recording or sometimes all three reach "hit" status and suddenly become a "must-hear" sensation. In the mid-90s it was Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Gorecki. A similar fate has been bestowed on Morton Lauridsen and his composition and CD entitled "Lux Aeterna." Lauridsen (b.1943) is professor and Chairman of the Department of Composition at the University of Southern California. He composed this work for and dedicated it to the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor, Paul Salamunovich. It was written as his mother neared death, and she died before composition was completed. The theme of the work is "eternal light," and this universal unitarian concept is perhaps what has made this work so popular in such a short time.

The work is written for chamber orchestra with full winds and brass sections and there are no vocal soloists. It is performed in five movements without pause. Especially in the writing for the woodwinds, there is a wonderful feeling of spaciousness that reminds one of Copland. It is easy to hear why this has become so popular. Like the Gorecki symphony mentioned earlier, "Lux Aeterna" luxuriates in slow-moving lush harmonies, beautifully orchestrated along with powerful choral climaxes. As he did for the Duruflé, Wynkoop prepared some introductory remarks and musical excerpts. This is something that many performers shy away from but it seems like most members of the audience welcome this added feature to the traditional concert protocol. While it can be said that this work might have too much of a good thing and can suffer from a lethargic sameness, this performance avoided all of those possible pitfalls. The range of dynamics by both chorus and orchestra was astounding. The full complement of winds and brass, along with the understated organ part, delivered a wide array of colors and textures that were always fluid and fresh. The result, overall, was a brilliant pairing of works and easily one of the best performances I have ever heard at Duke Chapel.