Friday evening's concert by the Annapolis Chorale was revealing indeed, as the audience overflowing St. Martin's Lutheran Church in Annapolis was able to hear how far the Chorale has come -- as well as gain a sense of where it needs to go.
The audience certainly was not cheated. Conductor Ernest Green led a program consisting of Gabriel Faure's Requiem, Bruckner's C-Major Mass, Annapolitan John Starr's lovely "Song For Good Weather," and Mozart's Symphony No. 29 performed by the Chorale's chamber orchestra. A full menu, to say the least.
Both the Chorale and the smaller Chamber Chorus, which sang the Bruckner, were in fine form. Their sound was full and involving. Several competent fellows have been added to the ranks since last season and the tenor and bass sections have obviously benefited from their voices.
The chamber group turned in a focused, energetic reading of the Bruckner Mass that included many lovely moments: a dramatic "Crucifixus," an enthusiastic conclusion to the "Gloria" and a terrific "Benedictus," led by the women's chorus. Even the Germanized Latin inexplicably favored by the conductor didn't detract too much. (Dono Nobis "Pat-sem." To my ears, it's nails on a blackboard.) The wonderful Faure Requiem, one of the crown jewels of the choral repertoire, also had its share of sublime moments, including a beautiful "Amen" to end the Offertory, a very dramatic "Hosanna in excelsis" and an effective "Exaudi" in the Kyrie.
What soon became clear, however, is that the singers are more adept at articulating the liturgical drama of these pieces in the louder, more enthused portions than in the hushed sections, where rapt intensity takes over from impassioned volume.
In the Faure Requiem, which contains one such mystical passage after another, that can be a problem. The "In Paradisum" and the Offertory were appealing, but numerous other interludes should have produced more goose bumps than they did.
The "Luceat eis," where a hushed choral cadence modulates into a gorgeous restatement of the Agnus Dei theme by the strings -- this time bathed in the sunshine of the key of D Major -- is one time-stopping moment that went by too uneventfully.
Other improvements might have included a more ethereal soprano sound at "Te decet hymnus;" a darker, more somber vocal color at the chorus' repear of the baritone's "Libera me;" and a more distant, seraphic beginning to the Sanctus.
Am I nit-picking? Hardly. "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death," wrote Faure, "and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death; as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above."
Such rich emotional content, you see, must be conveyed on all musical levels. Entering into the composer's world demands an expressive diversity that is remarkably tough to come by, but which remains the ultimate test of choral excellence.
Speaking of excellence, that's exactly what baritone soloist Robert Kennedy provided in the "Hostias" and "Libera Me"; solos which flowed beautifully.
No such luck with the "Pie Jesu," which received non-descript treatment from the decidedly ordinary soprano engaged to sing it.
Save for some fearsome above-the-staff scratching by the 1st violin in the Sanctus and a few too many fluffs emanating from the organ console, the orchestra contributed nicely to the two masses.
But the Mozart symphony, though professionally played, received a polite reading that made K. 201 sound more like 18th-century background music than a hustling, bustling masterpiece composed by a vibrant musical spirit who, at the age of 18, was already a master of symphonic form.