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Mozart’s Requiem Brings Out the Best in the Masterworks Chorale

November 7, 2017

Masterworks Chorale

The Masterworks Chorale, under the direction of Bryan Baker, paired Mozart’s Requiem, one of the greatest of the old classics, with the first performance of a newly commissioned work at its concert on Sunday, November 5, at the Cañada College Theatre in Redwood City.

Masterworks board President Sean McQuay, introducing the concert, asked us to reflect on recent mass tragedies and on more private personal tragedies in connection with the afternoon’s music. It was a well-meant thought, but this was not a strongly spiritual reading of the Requiem. I would call it a workaday, unpretentious, simply built performance. This had the advantage of minimizing the contrast between the genius of Mozart and the perhaps less-brilliant contributions of his loyal acolyte Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who finished up the work after Mozart’s untimely death.

The joy of listening to the Requiem for me lies in the complex interplay of the vocal parts. The Masterworks Chorale reveled in this, getting stronger whenever the music became more dramatic, and audibly brightening up with sudden vigor when arriving at one of the Requiem’s numerous fugal passages, prospects usually more likely to frighten off a nonprofessional choir. I was also particularly pleased with the intense drive in the stealthy “Lacrymosa” section, undiscernible as the collaboration between Mozart and Süssmayr that it actually is. The diction throughout was excellent.

Unusually for a nonprofessional choir, here the men’s sections were stronger and more prominent than the women’s. Rarely have I heard both tenors and basses stand out so clearly, while the altos and even the sopranos were often swallowed up. As an amateur bass, I could have used a recording of this concert as a rehearsal tape. The contrast was vivid in the “Confutatis.” As the men spat out the curse on the malefactors in rough, jagged canons, the women interrupted with their sotto voce consolation of the blessed in such a soft murmur that their voices seemed to be gently floating off into the blue.

The four soloists, all new to me, had a particularly interesting afternoon. Tenor Kevin Gino has a voice of firm character, as strong as it needs to be for a small auditorium. Bass-baritone Ben Brady sounds impressively deep, but his power and delivery are weaker. Both mezzo Veronica Jensen and soprano Yemonja Stanley have cool and resonant voices with no trouble in projecting. When all sang together, they conveyed unity in diversity, performing as a unit while each keeping distinctive and separate. It was the sound of a good operatic ensemble, and pleasing to hear. The small Masterworks Orchestra gave reliable accompaniment.

The new work presented at this concert was by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. Masterworks has performed music by him before with notable success, so Baker arranged for a commission. Gjeilo’s Sacris Solemniis sets a Latin communion prayer from the Roman Breviary. This music sounded more conventional, even watered down, than the spiritual “holy minimalist” works by Gjeilo that I’ve previously heard. The vocal melody had the satisfied air of a routine church hymn, varied in the middle before returning to the opening strains. This was accompanied by Windham Hill-like piano arpeggios and sweet harmonies held in the strings. It was nicely performed and pleasant to listen to, but less profound than gently soothing.

The remaining work on the program, also fairly new, was Frank Ticheli’s setting of a Sara Teasdale poem, There Will be Rest.  This unaccompanied piece, led by Masterworks assistant conductor Erin Moore, rips up and repeats phrases from the poem, building canons and other small but detailed diatonic structures. The result had complexity and weight within its small scale, making it intriguing as well as pleasurable.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.

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