Saturday, April 25, 2009

Music review: Master Chorale comes home to America in season closer

The Master Chorale of South Florida.

By Greg Stepanich

POMPANO BEACH -- The Master Chorale of South Florida made a welcome gesture in the direction of music from its own country Friday night with a program of older and newer American classics by Copland, Bernstein and Lauridsen.

The performances themselves, which closed the first season of the chorale's concerts under its new music director, Joshua Habermann, were something less than inspired, but they did serve as an effective reminder of the strength of the American choral repertory. And since the coming season features music by Beethoven, Handel and Mozart, it will be some time before we can hear this large group tackle pieces such as this again.

The centerpiece of the program at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach was the Chichester Psalms of Bernstein, written in 1965 while the composer was on sabbatical from his directorship of the New York Philharmonic. It has become a classic of contemporary music for its passionate, pungent settings of excerpts from six Psalms, interlarded with Bernstein's distinctive melodic gift.

As always, the chorale is able to summon a massive sound, powerful and hard to resist, and it made an impressive impact even with the much-reduced accompaniment heard Friday of organ, harp and percussion. But the tempo of the first section, dominated by an almost incongruous syncopated tune, was a shade too slow and not nearly light enough; it sounded heavy and clumsy rather than spirited.

The second movement featured a nicely sung treble solo from Alejandro Pichardo of Florida's Singing Sons Boychoir. He gave it the right sense of trusting faith that the words (of Psalm 23) call for, and the higher voices answered back in kind. In the third movement, the chorale was most effective in the full-volume portion of the first part, with its memorable, bluesy melody, and in the well-controlled, careful ending.

Organist Christopher Harrell, harpist Deborah Fleisher, and percussionist Andrew Proctor provided able, sensitive accompaniment, and Proctor in particular played his part with all the gusto he would have had there been a full orchestra on stage with him.

The chorale surrendered part of its evening to the Singing Sons Boychoir and its director, Craig Denison, who performed four songs from the second collection of Old American Songs by Aaron Copland, and the Simple Song from Bernstein's Mass.

Denison has taught his young charges well when it comes to diction, pronunciation and accuracy, and there was a smoothness and maturity about their singing that was commendable. But this was an oddly unenergetic performance of these little songs; everything sounded underpowered and restrained.

While that approach was marginally acceptable for the lovely lullaby that opened the four-song set, The Little Horses, it was misguided for the rest of the songs, especially the closing Ching-a-Ring Chaw, a boisterous, snappy minstrel ditty that was so cautious and laid-back that the closing "Chaw!" sounded like an accident rather than a logical ending for a vigorous tune.

The Copland was followed by A Simple Song, probably the best-known moment from Bernstein's Mass, a work that was almost universally derided at its premiere but which has now come into its own. Pichardo also soloed reasonably well, and the chorus of more than 30 boys again showed evidence of good preparation. There had some slight intonation problems, notably at the end, in navigating the very tricky melodic and harmonic challenges of this piece.

The concert opened with a very good reading of Lux Aeterna, a popular contemporary choral work from 1997 by the much-admired Morten Lauridsen, who's taught at the University of Southern California for decades. This is a lush and immediately appealing piece that has rather thin material cannily spread out over five movements.

But Habermann and his chorus gave the work a fine, measured rendition in which its primary glories -- big, fat Romantic chords and a recurring pop-like tune -- were given plenty of attention. The chorale under its new director has stronger male voices than it has had in the past, and while the tenors are still somewhat weak, there is a better balance among the sections and a recognizable character to each of them, and that's progress.

There was a certain shrillness to the loudest sections of the piece, and the Agnus Dei that precedes the closing Lux aeterna got off to a shaky start. Overall, though, the chorale sang with confidence, richness and beauty, and it suggested that this kind of material is well-suited for them.

Joshua Habermann has done an admirable job with the Master Chorale, and while its performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah earlier this season were more impressive than this American program, it is nevertheless comforting to see this fine group in good hands. What the chorale desperately needs now is more than two concerts a season, even though each program is repeated three times.

Arts funding is in tough straits right now, but perhaps a reduced version of the chorale can sing a couple more concerts in only one or two venues. That would help put all these talented people to greater use, and if an all-American program can be a regular feature of those additional concerts I have dreamed up for my fantasy season, so much the better.

The Master Chorale of South Florida and Florida's Singing Sons Boychoir will perform its Music by American Composers program at 8 pm toay at the Congregational Church of Boca Raton/United Church of Christ in Boca Raton, and at 4 pm Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Miami. Tickets are $35 and are available at the door. Call 954-418-6232 for more information.

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