THE CATHEDRAL of San Marco in Venice, an enormous domed building with layers of balconies, is famous in musical history because Giovani Gabrieli (1557-1612) composed choral works that singers and other musicians in separate places would send reverberating around the hall in luscious High Renaissance sound bites.
Gabrieli is known as the culmination of the antiphonal school of music, responsive singing by different units of a choir, said T. Herbert Dimmock, music director of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, organist, baritone and sacred choral music fan.
Singers, brass choirs and organs would speak to each other from different balconies and other spots. These passages were not in overlaying strands of music but in succeeding sections, creating a gorgeous line of harmony for worshipers. It would take five or six seconds for the sounds to carom around the huge cathedral.
The Basilica of the Assumption, at Charles and Mulberry streets, becomes such a rather large musical instrument with many players itself at 3 p.m. Sunday in a concert "Music for a Great Space."
Led by Dimmock, 84 singers of the Handel Choir divide into as many as eight separate singing groups to sing 16th century and other music from the floor and different balconies. Two brass ensembles and the church's restored organ are in on the fun.
"The Basilica, one of the most important buildings acoustically as well as religiously and architecturally in the United States, is remarkably similar to San Marco [St. Mark's] . . . a large dome, six balconies and fine organ," Dimmock noted. "We are singing six pieces by Gabrieli. He and others of the antiphonal school had a strong influence on the Baroque."
All told, the choir and instruments are performing polychoral and other works by 12 composers from five centuries in the opening concert of the choir's 56th season.
The choir will be on three balconies in three corners of the Basilica for "Alleluia, Sing a New Song" by Jacobus Gallas (1550-1591). Singers will be in eight places on the main floor for "Spem in Alium" by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Choir members in two places and the brass will alternate in "In Ecclesiis" by Gabrieli.
Another delight should be the choral version, "Agnus Dei," of the popular "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Remaining composers lending their scores, sometimes briefly, to the rich program are:
Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), "Procession of the Nobles"; R. Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), "Festival Te Deum"; Henry Cowell (1897-1958), "Rondo"; and Orindio Bartolini (c.1580-1640), "Canzon Trigesima a 8."
Also, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), "Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott"; Henry Purcell (1659-1695), "Gavotte," played by organist Dimmock; Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-), "Lux Aeterna" and Bastian Chilese (?-?), "Canzon Trigesima Seconda."
Eager to get the season going is bass Gil French, a retired city math teacher doing part-time teaching at Johns Hopkins University. He began singing with the choir in 1953, was drafted in the Army for two years and came back in 1955 to stay except for one year working on a master's degree. His 35 years puts him many "Messiahs" ahead of his colleagues (he's sung more than 100).
"I got into the choir because I was young and loved singing and had Monday nights free," he said. "I still love it and stay mainly because there's always something to learn, even in 'The Messiah'. I've enjoyed all the directors though I learned the most from my first, Jimmy [James Winship] Lewis, because I had more to learn then." Other directors were Saul Lillienstein, Ronald Gretz and Darrold Hunt.
Dimmock, a longtime student of the German conductor Helmuth Rilling, has directed the choir since 1977. He met his future wife, Dr. Rebecca Bascom, there. He has tripled the number of annual concerts from three to nine, including four "Messiahs."
Although called the Handel Choir, the group has always performed music by a variety of composers, Dimmock said. Its first piece in fact was Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah," performed at the Lyric for a national music teachers convention in 1934.
"We feel it's a privilege to sing Baroque and other choral music," Dimmock said. "The achievement of Bach, for instance, is extraordinary. We have hectic, stressful rehearsals, but I try to keep the vision of love for this music. The singers sing for the love of it."
The director added that over the years the choir had commissioned and performed three works, two in the past decade by Ray Sprenkle, "Simple Songs" and "Go Down, Death," and one almost 30 years ago by Alan Hovhanes, "Look Towards the Sea."
Tickets for Sunday's concert are $13 and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door or by calling Telecharge at 625-1400.
Bach, Verdi, Haydn also on schedule
The Handel Choir of Baltimore will sing Handel, Bach, Verdi and Haydn in its four major 1990-91 programs after Sunday's concert at the Basilica of the Assumption. The schedule looks like this:
"THE MESSIAH," by Handel, four performances: Friday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m., St. Mark Church, 27 Melvin Ave., Catonsville; Saturday, Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m., Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St.; Sunday, Dec. 16, 4 p.m., St. Joseph's Church, 101 Church Lane, Cockeysville, and Tuesday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m., Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College.
"BACH MOTETS," Sunday Feb. 17, 4 p.m.: two of Bach's seven motets, "Come, Jesus, Come" and "Jesus, My Joy," First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Charles and 39th streets (also, the choir's offices and rehearsal home).
"THE MANZONI REQUIEM," by Verdi: Sunday April 7, 4 p.m., Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher.
"HARMONY MASS,'' by Haydn, and "Coffee Cantata" by Bach, Sunday May 19, 4 p.m., Second Presbyterian Church.