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Spirited Rejoicing, Bitter Mourning

November 25, 2008

Chora Nova made a "Voyage of Discovery" Saturday night to the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, introducing its audience to composers usually encountered mainly in Baroque music workshops. Under the sure hand of Director Paul Flight, and assisted by an excellent chamber orchestra, the chorus ushered in the Christmas season with Johann Kuhnau's Magnificat, Mary's wondering reaction to the news that she will become mother to the Son of God.
Kuhnau (1660-1722) would never be taken for Bach, Handel, or Telemann. His style is very much his own, characterized by graceful melodic invention. The chorus began with the opening Magnificat and sang a stirring rendition of "Fecit potentiam" (He hath shown might in his arm). Other lines were given to soloists. Soprano Ann Moss gave a splendid performance of "Et exaltavit spiritus meus" (My spirit hath rejoiced), ably accompanied by oboist Jessica Boelter. Moss was joined by alto Ruthann Lovetang in the duet "Esurientes implevit" (He hath filled the hungry with good things), the conclusion of which "sent the rich empty away" as a few bare notes trailed off in the low strings.

Mark Bonney's clear, attractive tenor was put to good use in "Suscepit Israel" (He hath received Israel his servant), and bass-baritone Paul Murray gave glorious utterance to the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father), easily mastering florid passages and great leaps in the vocal line. The solo quartet started the final chorus, and all ended with a contrapuntal flourish.
In Memoriam
A Requiem Mass written by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) marked the anniversaries of the death of Emperor Joseph I in the 18th century and John F. Kennedy in the 20th. Zelenka's Mass, given a spirited performance by the chorus, abounds in unexpected harmonic turns, inventive counterpoint, and rhythmic surprises. Several sections begin with unison chanting by the men, followed by contrapuntal entrances section by section. The Requiem and Kyrie themes are marvelously chromatic, and sudden harmonic changes invoke the hellish moments in the Offertorium. The delightful Hosanna, with its cross rhythms and irregular measures, contrasts with a homophonic Agnus Dei.

The solo voices were given short passages closely woven into the choral fabric, except in the long Dies Irae, which began and ended with strong choral singing (Day of wrath, day of judgment, day of mourning) and turned the intervening parts over to solos and duets. Paul Murray's singing was wonderfully expressive in the Dies Irae. Expressive of exactly what, an audience member might sometimes wonder, since the Latin text was not in the printed program and it was easy to get lost in the translation. Subsequent sections of the Mass were easy to follow, and quartet and chorus combined beautifully in the final return of Requiem Aeternum (Eternal rest).

I remember the year in which the Baroque Choral Guild, which had been rehearsing in two sections, decided to stay with its base down the peninsula from San Francisco, abandoning its East Bay contingent of unwilling commuters, like a swarm of bees following its queen and leaving behind a small, unhappy group of bees. Said group named itself Chora Nova, and got Paul Flight to help them out. He has added to their numbers, shaped a lovely sound, and programmed imaginatively. This season, their "Voyage of Discovery" program continues in the spring, exploring music by Zoltán Kodály and Carl Orff.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.