The 1990 Christmas season was officially ushered in Saturday evening at St.
Mary's Church in Annapolis by the singers of the Arundel Vocal Arts Society, who performed an anthology of holiday music.
An international dimension was clearly evident: Religious works by Rachmaninoff, J. S. Bach, Hector Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Handel and Haydn were included on the program. Mozart's "Coronation Mass" was the centerpiece.
With a nice-sounding chorus holding forth in such a brightly lighted, acoustically alive church, the scene was certainly set for a wonderful musical prelude to the joys of the season. I am forced to report, however, that the evening's artistic results were often less than wonderful.
Conductor Ava Shields clearly commands the enthusiasm of her singers, but, for reasons I don't truly understand, she seems locked into three basic tempos -- fast, faster, and all-hell-breaking-loose. To complicate matters further, the listener is likely to encounter all three within any four- or five-measure span.
The good news, I suppose, is that this "full speed ahead" approach can generate visceral excitement in music that is at least partly amenable to it. "Singt dem Herren" ("Sing the Lord Ye Voices All"), the concluding chorus to Franz Joseph Haydn's miraculous oratorio, "The Creation," is one of them, and it received a rousing reading that was short on finesse but long on snap, crackle and pop.
Several sections of the "Coronation Mass" can also subsist mainly on pep. The "Gloria," "Sanctus" and "Hosannah" were suitably zippy, as were portions of the "Credo," though little was made of the intense mood changes in the "Et Incarnatus Est" and "Crucifixus" interludes.
But adrenalin alone can't bring great music alive for very long. Bach wrote breathless exultation into every single bar of the opening chorus of his "Christmas Oratorio." But when this inimitable hustle and bustle is tastelessly kicked into overdrive, it becomes nothing more than a fast-forwarded blur of loud, choppy vocal phrases and unplayable 16th notes.
Similarly, chorus and director careened through "Glory to God" from "Messiah," paying virtually no attention to the subtleties of Handel's writing. There ought to be a real change of character between the celestial "Glory to God" and the grounded "And Peace on Earth," for example.
Solo interludes in the "Coronation Mass" should have become moments of relaxation from the emphatic declamations of the chorus, but at 100 mph, who can tell?
Three of these four soloists did well enough, by the way, but I'm afraid that soprano Deborah Arnold was not a felicitous choice for this piece, which ideally requires a clear-as-a-bell Mozartean sound. Arnold, generally a talented performer, had an off-night, sounding inappropriately heavy and labored, with her consonants emerging only infrequently.
The "hell-for-leather" school of conducting also runs into trouble over the question of balancing a chorus and an orchestra.
Pierre Monteux, one of the 20th century's true masters of the podium, joked that the first rule of successful conducting was never to look encouragingly at a brass player.
After hearing the opening of the "Christmas Oratorio," I wonder if Monteux wasn't serious. Blaring trumpets made it impossible to hear anything else of orchestral consequence.
The "Kyrie" of the "Coronation Mass" is actually a minioboe concerto, which means that disaster strikes when the soloist is as completely inaudible as he was Saturday evening.
The interesting thing is that it simply doesn't have to be this way.
Assistant conductor Glenette Schumacher directed a pair of selections from Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ." While the overture to Part II was delivered a bit matter-of-factly, orchestral textures and colors emerged clearly, and the beautiful "Shepherd's Chorus" was warm, relaxed and nicely phrased.
If these folks would think finesse instead of volume and speed, they'd be quite good indeed.
I was initially critical of Ava's decision to sing all of these works in English. However, one of my Annapolis High School students, whose opinions I deeply respect, told me she was glad she could follow the English and not the Russian, French and German originals. Perhaps she had a point, so I'll not quibble.
The "Coronation Mass," however, was sung in admirably crisp Latin. Deo Gratias.