The Baltimore Choral Arts Society began its 25th season with a special concert yesterday in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College.
It was special because the society's founder and first music director, Theodore Morrison, was on hand to share conducting duties with his successor, Tom Hall. And it was special in the way any concert is special when a fine program is beautifully performed.
The program was divided equally between Mozart and Haydn -- with Morrison's leading the former's "Vespers" (K. 339) and Hall's concluding the concert with Haydn's great "Heiligmesse." If this concert had really been a face-off between the two great composers -- as the Choral Arts Society's tongue-in-cheek ads would have had us believe -- then it would have been Haydn by a knockout in the early rounds. The "Vespers" is not top-drawer Mozart and the "Heiligmesse" is the first of six astonishingly splendid masses that crowned their creator's career late in his life.
Hall, his choristers and his superb chamber orchestra (which is made up mostly of some of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's finest players) performed the Haydn work with fluent, sensitive and buoyant playing and with enthusiastic and clear singing. Since 1986, Hall has been programming one of these masses each year -- only the "Schopfungsmesse" remains -- and each year his performance has, it seems, grown grander and more flexible.
If there was not much for the fine soloists (soprano Lisa Asher, alto Yvette Matthews, tenor David Hamilton and baritone James Watson) to do in the Haydn, there was more in the Mozart, which was lovingly conducted by Morrison.
Despite the fact that the "Vespers" is a sacred work, its music approaches the operatic -- even the "amens" sometimes have a teasingly dramatic quality. As Hall's program notes observed, the "Vespers" may not be a work that Mozart wanted to write. But while there is a certain amount -- for Mozart -- of note spinning, there also are moments that stop the heart.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing in the work is the "Laudate Dominum" that the soprano, in the music's penultimate section, sings in praise of God. Whatever the liturgical text says, the music is really a yearning paean to sexual love in the manner of those of Fiordiligi in "Cosi" or the Countess in "Figaro." The Vespers may be inferior Mozart, but in the "Laudate Dominum" the composer outclasses Haydn and every other great composer.