Putting secular touches on sacred texts

The Handel Choir ably performs works by Britons

Music Review

November 27, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two of England's greatest composers, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, wrote masterfully for voices and had a way of addressing religious texts in remarkably creative ways.

When Britten slips a bouncy waltz into a cantata about St. Nicholas, or throws in some old-fashioned congregational singing, he gives a nice jolt to the genre of sacred music. And when Vaughan Williams delves into mystical imagery of a Christian poet, the result is really nondenominational.

To launch its 70th season, the Handel Choir of Baltimore offered an ambitious sampling of these composers Sunday afternoon before a capacity crowd at Second Presbyterian Church. Elam Ray Sprenkle, one of several guest conductors who will direct the choir this season, led the performance, which also involved members of Second Presbyterian's choir and the Handel Children's Choir. On technical grounds, the results were mixed. On expressive ones, things were more consistent.

Britten's St. Nicholas, with a fanciful text by Eric Crozier, is an endearing creation. The story of the holy man who "climbed up to the font to be baptized," stopped a fierce storm at sea and restored "pickled boys" to life inspired the composer. The music abounds in vivid choral writing and splashes of instrumental coloring, but also makes its reverential points very effectively along the way.

The choral forces did not always make a solidly centered tone; individual voices had a way of poking through the blend, sometimes just shy of the pitch. But the singing was animated and communicative. Tenor soloist William Farrah Strum likewise compensated for some unfocused sounds with stylishly shaped phrasing.

Sprenkle didn't always hold everyone together (the children's choir was behind him in the balcony), but he kept the score's inner pulse going strongly and built to climactic points very effectively. A little orchestra provided decent support.

An earlier work by Britten, Te Deum, enjoyed generally disciplined singing from the choir, silvery solos from soprano Laurie Hungerford Flint, and incisive playing from organist Margaret Budd.

Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs finds the composer in his super-pastoral mode, with artfully curving melodies bathed in rich harmonies. The poems by George Herbert can be rather dense, and many of the lines do not lend themselves easily to song. Still, the music exudes a distinctive beauty that Sprenkle helped convey in a thoughtful performance.

Baritone Steve Rainbolt brought considerable sensitivity to the solo part, if not always a wide variety of tonal inflection. The choral contributions were mostly sturdy.

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