SUNDAY'S CONCERT at the Basilica of the Assumption by the Handel Choir
of Baltimore momentarily transported the listener back to the Cathedral of St. Mark's in Venice in all its Renaissance splendor. The music of Gabrieli filled the great dome over the audience and echoed among the statues and candles and banners.
Then you began to notice just how hard the pews were.
This struggle between the poetic ideal and the reality of performance marked the uneven work of this choir and their director T. Herbert Dimmock. In an imaginative program titled "Music for a Great Space," they sought to re-create the acoustical grandeur of Venetian polychoral music and its modern successors. For every direct hit they made at this target, there was also a miss.
Massive blocks of sound, from the choir and the brass choir, were pitted against each other, drowning the audience in an ocean of sound. When it worked, the effect was thrilling and the Basilica provided the perfect space to display it. There was something physically exciting about hearing a huge sound reverberate throughout the building long after the choir had finished singing.
Jacobus Gallus' "Alleluia, Sing a New Song" demonstrated this particularly well. Divided into smaller choirs stationed in three balconies around the Basilica, each group sang at the other, creating a glorious noise. Dimmock kept superb control over these competing forces. Textures remained clear and focused. The difficult sudden changes in meter were handled with precision and grace. Two motets by Giovanni Gabrieli, "O Magnum Mysterium" and "In Ecclesiis," were equally successful.
That made the problems which plagued the rest of the concert all the more puzzling. Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium", a motet written in 40 parts, needs all of the skills mentioned above and then some. Dimmock placed the eight sub-choirs noted in the score in a large circle surrounding the audience. He also added a trombone to gird the choirs, which did nothing but make this ecstatic music leaden. The entire piece seemed in danger of collapsing and became an ugly muddle.
Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," adapted from his popular "Adagio for Strings," was rushed and needed a more relaxed and nuanced approach. Ralph Vaughn William's "Festival Te Deum" received a spirited reading but was overwhelmed by the instrumental accompaniment.
The oddity on the program, and it was a fascinating one, was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna." Shimmering clusters of notes that gradually faded into silence made for an unusual listening experience. It is a difficult piece to perform but tentativeness cannot be a substitute for softness.
Dimmock also included a series of instrumental Canzons for brass choir that were ably performed and added luster to the concert's total effect.