Opus Colorado

Mozart plus Saless and Morgan: Spellbinding

Friday evening, October 28, I attended a concert at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on 14th Avenue and Washington Street. This is one concert that I had been looking forward to, for it was a joint venture between two very exciting music organizations in the state, if not the entire Rocky Mountain region. It was a combined concert between the Ars Nova Singers, conducted by Thomas Edward Morgan, and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Bahman Saless. The main event of this concert was the Mozart Requiem, which as everyone knows, is one of the Requiem Masses of all time. The Mozart Requiem was sung after the intermission, but before the intermission were two absolute gems: the Concerto for Strings in D minor, RV 127, by Antonio Vivaldi, and the Cantique de Jean Racine, by Gabriel Fauré.

As Maestro Bahman Saless explained to the audience, the Vivaldi and Fauré are miniatures, and were chosen because they are small pieces, and would give enough time for the Mozart Requiem to be performed after the intermission.

I referred to the Vivaldi, above, as a gem, and believe me, it is. I will quote from the excellent program notes:

“Of the literally hundreds of concertos that Vivaldi wrote, approximately forty are for the entire string orchestra rather than for any particular solo instrument. Of these so-called ripieno concertos, there are twelve collected in one manuscript that resides at the Paris Conservatoire library. Although Vivaldi was known to have French patrons, most notably the French ambassador to Venice, the genesis of this collection and its connection to Paris remain unclear.

“… Its three brief movements follow the standard Italianate Concerto format of fast-slow-fast, with lively, repetitive figuration in the outer movements and a small moment of rhapsodizing for the first violin in between. What continues to amaze is Vivaldi’s ability to conjure endless variety and freshness within the briefest of forms and with the slightest of materials.”

Sharp eyed readers will also note the number, RV 127, which follows the title of the piece. A couple of years ago in another article on Vivaldi, I explained the complex Vivaldi thematic catalogue system. I will quote from my previous article:

“It is interesting to note the RV number. Unlike the D. numbers in Schubert, which stand for Deutsch, the musicologist who put Schubert’s works in chronological order, there are six different methods in identifying Vivaldi’s output. To make a long story short, Mario Rinaldi catalogued much of Vivaldi’s output, but some works were not included or not yet discovered. The Danish musicologist, Peter Ryom began his own catalog of Vivaldi’s works and also included a Concordance with Rinaldi’s catalog. Ryom suggests using RV, wherein the V stands for the German word Verzeichnis or catalogue (not Vivaldi as many suspect) and R can refer to either the Italian publisher Ricordi or to Rinaldi. I pray that you readers will trust me on the following comment, and that is: once the difference between all of the Rs is established then one can continue to the Pincherle Catalog, the Fanna Numbers, or the Malipiero Organization. There is enough information here for a doctoral dissertation.”

The best word that describes the performance of this Vivaldi Concerto is scintillating. The remarkable musicians of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra immersed this work in shimmering light. Maestro Saless found the perfect tempo, and the strings executed the ornamentation, mordents and appoggiaturas, with graceful precision. As a matter of fact, I was quite struck by the superior performance by the concertmaster, Annamaria Karacson, and the entire violin section. But truly, that speaks to the ability of this chamber orchestra: when one performs Vivaldi, the strings have to be accomplished, and everyone in this chamber orchestra is. I wish there was more space in this article, and I would name them all. This was a memorable performance.

When Gabriel Fauré (1845 to 1924) was a young boy in Arlège, France, Henry David Thoreau was in the process of writing Walden. When he died, in 1924, World War I had finally ended a few years earlier, and left a devastated Europe behind. Igor Stravinsky had written The Right of Spring. Fauré spent much of his youth playing the harmonium in a chapel which was next to his father’s school. He became one of the most progressive figures in Europe after studying at the illustrious École Niedermeyer in Paris. Camille Saint-Saëns joined the school as a faculty member in 1861, and Fauré continued his studies with him. The composition heard Friday evening, the Cantique de Jean Racine, was originally written for choir and organ, but in 1905, Fauré orchestrated the organ part for chamber orchestra. It was this version which was sung on Friday evening’s program. Fauré won first prize in 1865 for this composition.

This work was conducted by Maestro Bahman Saless, but Maestro Thomas Morgan, of course, prepared the Ars Nova Singers. And I would like to point out, that Mr. Morgan sang in the choir for this performance. And what a beautiful performance it was! Right away, I noticed that 1) I could understand what the choir was singing because their diction was excellent, and 2) from where I was sitting, the acoustics in St. John’s Cathedral were perfect. I will say that there was a very large audience, so I am sure that affected the acoustics. The result, whether due to the large audience or not, was a splendid performance where the orchestra never overpowered the choir, nor did the choir ever overpower the orchestra. This has to be one of Fauré’s most serene compositions. The music encompasses Racine’s three stanza prayer, “Word of God, one with the most high… Pour on us the fire of thy mighty grace.” Again, the word I used in the first paragraph of this article, “scintillating,” comes to mind. The balance between the orchestra and the choir was perfect, and Fauré’s harmonies never grow old. Maestro Saless gently exposed the phrasing in this tiny masterpiece, and made the hearing of this work absolutely sublime.

Following the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and the Ars Nova Singers performed Mozart’s Requiem Mass. As most everyone is aware, until recently, there was great mystery surrounding Mozart’s death and the completion of this famous composition. In August of 2009, I wrote an article on the death of Mozart and the Requiem’s completion. At the performance Friday evening, CU musicologist, Peter Alexander, presented a terrific pre-concert lecture on the same subject. Not only that, but in the program notes he included a wonderful chart concerning the original manuscripts of the Requiem, and a Requiem Timeline concerning details of its completion and the “fraud” surrounding the attributation of its composition. These two items in the program notes certainly gave me a new visual perspective of all of the events surrounding the Requiem. I think that everyone realizes, by now, that these events were fictionalized in the movie, “Amadeus.”

This performance truly was one of the best that I have heard of the Mozart Requiem. Why? For many reasons. The soloists, Szilvia Schranz, soprano (and daughter of the Concertmaster – amazing!), Leah Creek, mezzo, Joel Burcham, tenor, and Matthew Singer, bass, were not only all excellent, but their voices seem to be suited for this particular work, and this particular church. I could understand all four of them, because their diction was perfect, and I promise you that is not an exaggeration. In addition, as I have said before, the acoustics can sometimes be very problematical in St. John’s Cathedral. But it is often such a magical place to perform, that everyone is grateful to make use of this facility. But it seemed that on Friday evening, there was no issue with the acoustics at all. Again, I point out that Maestro Thomas Morgan prepared the choir, and Maestro Saless conducted the performance. It truly seemed as though both of these gentlemen knew how to manipulate the acoustics. I say that, because when Maestro Saless indicated sharp cut-offs to the orchestra and the choir, even when the phrase endings lasted only a nano second, everybody stopped in unison (as they are supposed to do) but the effect was magical, because of the echo. And again, perhaps because the audience was so large, that echo never covered up the choir or the chamber orchestra, and it never distorted the soloist’s excellent diction, nor the diction of the choir. It is been a long time since I have heard that in St. John’s Cathedral, so perhaps it was a confluence of all things enchanted, but I think it had more to do with the thorough musicianship of everyone involved.

This was such a fine and well balanced performance that it is very difficult to say, for example, that the Tuba Mirum was better than the Dies Irae, or that the Tenor was better than the Soprano. The entire performance was full of emotion, but never went beyond the style of Mozart. Everything was crystal clear, and the soloists were an equal part of the performance, never overshadowing it, and never timorous.

I must say that I was looking forward for a long time to this concert, because Saless and Morgan are two outstanding musicians. I did not exaggerate above when I said this was one of the best performances of the Mozart Requiem that I have heard. Perhaps due to the surroundings, it had a very intimate feel, but the choir, the orchestra, and the soloists all gave the impression that they were performing for just a select few. It was so very clean and clear that every note (from everyone) could be heard.

The standing ovation was very well deserved, and judging by the look on the faces of all the performers, it was clear they had given their best and found it very rewarding, as did the audience.