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Aiming for the Stars

March 4, 2008

In programming an American Bach Choir concert with the ambitious title "Vocal Visionaries," conductor Jeffrey Thomas set his sights high. Not only did he choose choral music that, in his opinion, displays the transcendent, visionary gifts of its composers, but he also strove to transport his audience with radiant vocalism. That's a tall order, especially when the music is as challenging as the chosen works, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Richard Strauss, Eric Whitacre, and Sven-David Sandström.
I attended the second of four consecutive concerts, held in Berkeley's resonant First Congregational Church. The first half of the program was devoted to one of the defining spiritual works of the Renaissance, Victoria's Requiem for six voices (SSATTB; 1603, published 1605). Thomas began what he introduced as an "astonishingly beautiful" Mass with "Taedet animam meam vitae meae" (I am weary at heart of my life), a four-voice work that Victoria, a priest, included somewhere in the initial performance at the funeral of the extremely well-positioned albeit ultimately horizontal Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II, and sister of Philip II.

As the music began, my initial reaction was that the "Taedet animam" seemed a bit perfunctory, far too plain to start an acknowledged masterpiece. (No wonder Peter Philips chose to exclude it from the Tallis Scholars' recording of the work.) While the chorus began to find its sonorous groove in the Introitus, "Requiem aeternam" (Grant them eternal rest), something did not seem right. Where were the sounds of timeless exaltation, pious devotion, and chaste purity that can transform Victoria's oft-seeming lack of the bold statement into a transcendent testament of the Christian faith?

Time and again, I closed my eyes, not only to shut out the unnaturally bright, glaring light that Thomas insists on — light far brighter than would ever illumine a cathedral, most certainly brighter than that required for reading fine print — but also to better experience liftoff. But it just didn't happen. As someone who has read countless reviews clearly penned by critics who were experiencing either physical exhaustion or bad digestion, I silently conducted an internal check to ascertain whether the problem was rooted in yours truly.

While audience members who loved what they heard may point irate fingers at you know who, my own critical faculties suggest that something musical was amiss. Perhaps the singers were tired or saving themselves for the even more challenging second half. Perhaps Thomas chose to focus more on the movement of Victoria's lines than the big picture (aka God). Certainly the singers were not always together, with numerous entrances throughout the evening marked by some voices sounding a bit slower than others. For whatever reasons, the angelic sopranos, faith-solid basses, and radiant vocalism that this work requires simply weren't there.
Mismatch of Vocal Styles in the Strauss
A different problem surfaced at the start of the second half, gratifyingly sung under somewhat subdued lighting. To Strauss' 16-part Der Abend (Evening), the tenors and basses brought an appropriately romantic, lush sound replete with judiciously employed vibrato. The sopranos and altos, by contrast, stuck with their vibratoless, early-music voice. While the males were outstanding, the sopranos, despite coping admirably with the extremely high opening, seemed of a different mind-set, and petered out in places. Such a two-headed approach to Strauss' lush romanticism just did not work.

Whitacre's gorgeous music, composed in the last decade, finally gave the choir an opportunity to shine. After a lovely performance of Lux aurumque (Golden light), all the choristers opened full voice for the central section of the almost 13-minute When David Heard. On the anguished, full-voiced repetition of "O my son, my son" — biblical verses invoked by a non-Christian composer to provide solace for a dear friend whose son had died — the entire church was filled with forceful, resounding energy. Despite the occasional high soprano entrance that seemed more screamed than sung, the choir rose to truly transcendent heights, capturing the heartrending anguish of a mourning father. The building rang with grief.

Having given their all, sopranos resorted to a few more screaming entrances for the final two works by Sandström. As beautiful as were Hear My Prayer, O Lord and Agnus Dei, some members of the audience, too, seem to have reached the saturation point, exhibiting an inordinate amount of fidgeting unheard during the first half. Nonetheless, prolonged applause occasioned an encore, Whitacre's Sleep. To these ears, one line was perfect, the next off. Having heard the heights that the American Bach Choir can reach when performing in peak form, here's hoping that they took their encore literally, and arrived in San Francisco (March 2) and Davis (March 3) singing at their considerable best.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.