Brass and Chorus – What a Sound!
by Ken Hoover
On Saturday, May 20, Maestros Alfred E. Sturgis and Michael Votta, Jr., led the NC Master Chorale and the NC Wind Orchestra through a truly noteworthy concert. All four of the works heard on the program at Meymandi Concert Hall made good use of this excellent brass and woodwind (and percussion) ensemble and the always-superb chorus. Sturgis conducted the first half and Votta took the baton throughout the second half.
The opening work was Randall Thompson's unforgettable "The Last Word's of David." I first sang it almost fifty years ago in an all-state festival under the direction of Robert Fountain. The work was composed for the 25th anniversary of Serge Koussevitsky's leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Using a text from the book of Samuel, it begins with a festive octave leap and a descending phrase on the words "He that ruleth over men, must be just, Ruling in the fear of God." The rest of the anthem comes down to earth quietly and reverently: "And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds... as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining... after rain. Alleluia." The closing Alleluia is every bit as incandescent and ethereal as his best known anthem, "Alleluia."
The major classical work of the evening was Anton Bruckner's Mass No. 2 in E Minor, and it is most certainly one of his crowning achievements. Meeting the demands of the circumstances (the Linz Cathedral dedication for which it was written had to be held outdoors), he made use of a cluster of brass and woodwinds and came up with a strikingly unique sound. Much of the work uses the chorus in unaccompanied polyphonic passages (sometimes in eight parts), with the instruments introducing, commenting, or supporting, sporadically. It requires the best of choruses and a skilled conductor to keep it all together. Other than one French horn entrance that went awry, the performance for the most part unfolded with devotion and precision. The opening Kyrie was marvelous; the choir's pianissimo entrances came out of nowhere, clean and pure, and built to the prayer's plea for mercy in fortissimo. The Credo section, especially from "Et in carnatus est" ("He was incarnate....") through the "Crucifixus," is some of the most beautiful and vividly descriptive music written for any mass. And then, after a brief, sad interlude for brass, the "Et resurrexit" is like the stone of the tomb being rolled away and the risen Christ appearing in all his glory. This is the work of a devout man whose genius is often underrated and sometimes misunderstood.
After intermission, with Votta on the podium, we heard Wagner's "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral," which concludes the second act of Lohengrin. The arrangement was originally prepared by Votta for brass ensemble alone, but for this collaborative performance the voice parts were given back to the chorus. Wagner, nearing his maturity, employs his now well-known rich, dense harmonies, his formidable orchestration, and his genius of sustained building to a climax. It was grand and glorious in every sense.
With Samuel Adler's "Rogues and Lovers," it was immediately evident that we were in a different world. This was the only work on the program I had never heard before, and it thrilled me with its saucy and brash dissonances and its raucous, inventive rhythms. It is post-Wagnerian music at its most entertaining.
Adler is one of those German creative giants who came to the United States in the late 1930s. Now in his 80s, he continues to hold a position as Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music. The work we heard makes use of Irish, British, Caribbean, American, South American, and Liberian folk tunes, one melding into the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes subtly. The Irish tune "Searching for Lambs," scored for the enlarged and percussion-enhanced brass ensemble, served as the prelude. "What you going to do with a Drunken Sailor" was playful and impudent. The Appalachian folk song, "He's Gone Away," scored for chorus a cappella, was exquisitely beautiful. The Caribbean and South American music was intricately rhythmic, and the closing American tune "The Gypsum Lady" was pure fun.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to hear this concert. I was a little disappointed that Meymandi Concert Hall was only about two-thirds filled. The artists deserved a packed house! Next time you have a chance like this, don't pass it up!