Annapolis Chorale ends season with early Mass from Puccini

Little-known piece soars with help of male soloists

May 10, 2001|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a lifelong Puccini fan who only discovered "Messa di Gloria" at an October 1996 Baltimore Symphony concert, I've heard it twice during the current season in Annapolis.

In December, the Arundel Vocal Arts Society gave a memorable performance of the Mass with orchestra and chorus that displayed the combined voices beautifully without benefit of the tenor and baritone soloists. On Saturday, J. Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale capped their season with the work featuring two amazing soloists - tenor Matthew Kirchner and baritone Shouvik Mondle.

After a triumphant performance of Bach's majestic "St. Matthew's Passion" a month earlier before a capacity audience at St. Anne's Church, the chorale made a 180-degree turn to deliver this relatively obscure Puccini work that drew an audience filling only half the seats at Maryland Hall.

Written by 19-year-old Giacomo Puccini as a graduation exercise and performed only once in 1880, never published and not rediscovered until 1951, "Messa di Gloria" was praised in 1880 for its "rich and spontaneous melodies and effective construction," with reservations about its being "too theatrical," praise and criticism echoed at a 1951 performance.

In this work, the listener can find Verdi and Puccini on the same page, as the young composer, so impressed with Verdi's "Aida" and "Nabucco," presages the drama of his opera "Manon Lescaut," where parts of the Mass are heard in the Agnus Dei and theatricality of "Tosca" in that opera's "Te Deum."

Although the composer is still trying to find his musical voice, there is a sense of unity in this Mass, but as music director Green explains, "There is also a pulling apart as the chorus has to shift gears at the abrupt changes between sections of the Mass, moving from exuberant crackling with energy to subdued."

From the first notes of the chorale's performance in the Kyrie section, the joyous sound of the female voices alternated with exultant male voices. The Gloria section that followed is highly dramatic, with a rising brass crescendo reminiscent of "Aida." The male voices of the chorale sounded better and stronger than ever, perhaps indicating that Green had positioned each tenor and baritone perfectly for ultimate effect.

The Credo section was even more operatic, with the orchestra sounding intense supporting tenor Kirchner, whose powerful voice filled the hall. Matching the tenor was Mondle, whose warm voice is so pure that it was difficult to tell where the oboe stopped and Mondle's voice began as the music moved from nearly melodramatic to a dark melody of sublime beauty.

The Sanctus also is filled with gorgeous melody caressed by the chorus, with Mondle alternating with Kirchner before joining in the harmonic duet, where the voices seemed perfectly matched. In choosing these soloists, Green paid his chorus a high compliment by recognizing that their voices would not be overshadowed by them.

Initially, Saturday's program was to include contemporary American composer Morton Lauridson's "Lux Aeterna" with the "Messa di Gloria," but Green explained that plans had changed because of the possibility of doing Lauridson's work next season in New York as well as here. Two pieces were substituted: Mozart's Symphony No. 29, the composer's first major symphony, written when he was 18, and Puccini's "Crisantemi" ("Chrysanthemums"), a piece for a string quartet from "Manon Lescaut" that struck me as poignant and soulful, with its descending tones as exotic as the flower itself that is chosen in Italy to adorn graves.

Having heard some of the Lauridson "Lux Aeterna" in rehearsal at Maryland Hall, I was disappointed not to hear it on the program. But I can hardly complain about being offered a Mozart symphony that gives us a glimpse into the classical style he would create.

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