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Tasty B&B

April 3, 2004

Wendy Hillhouse

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By Lisa Hirsch

There was much to admire in San Francisco Choral Society's Saturday program of works by Brahms and Beethoven, but also a sense that more was possible than was delivered.

The overall excellence of the group itself was clear from the first note to the last, in their firm tone and good diction, their responsiveness to director Robert Geary, their attention to the music and to each other. And the program itself was attractive, combining Brahms's Alto Rhapsody (for male chorus, with soloist Wendy Hillhouse), Ave Maria (for female chorus), and Schicksalslied (Song of Fate) with Beethoven's 1807 Mass in C. The three Brahms works are done less often than his Requiem, but they're cut from the same musical cloth. Schicksalslied and the Alto Rhapsody, like the Requiem, contrast sorrow with hope and comfort. Ave Maria is a gentle, lilting appeal to the Virgin. Brahms's choral writing, as always, is balm for the ear and the soul.

Hillhouse made a marvelous and moving contribution to the Rhapsody. A musician to the core, she sang gorgeously, with golden-age legato and attention to the line. Her voice has the requisite range and depth of sound for the piece; her tone is distinctive and beautiful; her impeccable technique was invisibly, perfectly, put in service of the music.

In all, the three works were well performed from every technical standpoint, but they were emotionally understated, too much so — surely there is more drama than we heard in the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied — and that pattern continued through the Beethoven.


The Mass in C, written in 1807, is a far cry from the vast, craggy Missa Solemnis of some 15 years later; in scale (and singability) it's much closer to Haydn's late masses. Still, like most Beethoven, the Mass needs some propulsiveness and some drama; the rhythms in up-tempo sections should snap and bounce. But snap and drama were in short supply, and in their place was a homogeneity of tempo and mood that dulled the impact of the piece. The opening Kyrie, for example, was gentle and sweet, perhaps too much so — it wanted more forward movement. The sections “Et resurexit” and “Et expecto resurrectionem” had some vitality, but most of the piece wanted more life. It would have helped a lot if Geary had chosen more varied tempos; as it was, they were in a narrow range, never very fast nor very slow. The tempo markings in the Credo, for example, range from Allegro con brio to Adagio to Vivace, but the contrasting tempos (and moods) needed to be drawn more sharply. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the central mystery of Christianity, but there was not much mystery to be found, nor sufficient joy.

Hillhouse returned as the splendid alto soloist in the Beethoven, where she was joined by soprano Jennifer Brody, tenor Jeffrey Barnett, and bass-baritone Boyd Jarrell. Brody was at her best when she could soar, as in the Benedictus. Barnett and Jarrell sang competently but anonymously; Barnett needed more comfort at the top of his range and, generally, more volume.

The small orchestra, with only 16 strings, played well, with much spirit, and succeeded in sounding much larger; special praise to Bruce Foster for the beautiful clarinet solo in the Agnus Dei.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2004 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved