Rare performance of liturgical `Sacred Service' a `don't-miss' event

CRITIC'S CORNER

Critic's Corner//Music

March 28, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

"Come before his presence with a song," the psalmist wrote. People of Hebrew and Christian faiths have done just that through the centuries.

While a lot of sacred music is intended for actual services, there is a vast repertoire that fits just as neatly into concert hall settings. This is particularly true of works by Catholic and Protestant composers, from Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios to Masses by Beethoven, Verdi and Stravinsky.

But comparable concert works from the Jewish liturgy are much smaller in number, the opportunity to hear them in performance exceedingly rare.

This makes the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's presentation of Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service on Sunday - apparently the first local performance in 25 years - all the more welcome and significant. The event has "don't miss" all over it.

Music lovers unfamiliar with this masterpiece will be in for a revelation. The Swiss-born Bloch, who spent much of his life in this country (he died in Oregon in 1959), developed an individualistic style driven by melody during an era when many composers were heading in much more abstract directions.

Bloch focused on his heritage at several points in his career, producing seven substantial pieces that have come to be known as his "Jewish cycle." The best known of these is the haunting Schelomo for cello and orchestra.

In the early 1930s, Bloch was commissioned to set a Sabbath morning service to music. The result was a roughly 50-minute score for baritone, chorus and orchestra.

While working on the piece, Bloch spoke of absorbing the words from the Torah and other sources "to the point that [they have] become mine, and as if [they] were the very expression of my soul. Though intensely Jewish in its roots," the composer wrote, the message of "this marvelous text ... seems to me above all a gift of Israel to the whole of mankind."

The music's evocation of traditional Hebraic melody is complemented by a lush harmonic base and vivid orchestral coloring that generate passages of drama and lyrical beauty. Like all great liturgical music, Bloch's Sacred Service speaks with a universal eloquence.

Choral Arts Music Director Tom Hall will conduct Bloch's Sacred Service, with Cantor Thom King as soloist, at 4 p.m. Sunday at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave.

There will be a post-concert conversation with Hall, King and Rabbi Mark Loeb. Remaining tickets are $20 and $25, half price for students. Call 410-523-7070 or visit baltimorechoralarts.org.

Russian virtuoso

Vadim Repin, the sensational Russian violinist, will be presented by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a recital with pianist Nikolai Lugansky.

Repin, who brought down the house last week at the Washington National Opera gala, will perform works by Bartok, Schubert, Franck and Arvo Part.

The recital is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $75. Call 410-783-8000 or visit baltimoresymphony.org.

Trombones out front

Trombone players who have suffered through opera performances where, as trombonist and composer David Fetter notes, "they can neither see nor be seen and where the music often limits them to joining in at moments of high drama amid long periods of inactivity," will get their revenge this weekend.

Fetter's Trombone Opera, which will be premiered by the Largely Ludwig Chamber Ensemble, lets three trombonists escape the orchestra pit. They "are brought on stage and given all the tunes," Fetter says. "The mood of the work sometimes reflects the opera trombonist's impatience with his/her purgatorial existence."

Works by Beethoven, Mozart and others will also be on this program at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion (Engineers Club), 11 West Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $17 (discounts for students and seniors). Largely Ludwig Chamber Ensemble will also perform music by Beethoven and Vaughan Williams in the same place at 8 p.m. Friday.

Call 443-850-7359.

Pro Musica Rara

The next program by Pro Musica Rara, the fine period instrument ensemble, focuses on Beethoven and Schubert. Featured performers are pianist Edmund Battersby, violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Allen Whear.

This particular concert provides a nice opportunity to hear the immediate precursor to the modern piano - the fortepiano. The one that will be played by Battersby, built in 2002 in Maine by Rodney J. Regier, is a copy of a typical Viennese fortepiano, circa-1830.

The concert is at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 W. Chesapeake Ave. Tickets are $25 (discounts for seniors and students, free for children under 12). Call 410-728-2820.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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