Choral Arts tackles war, peace

CRITIC'S CORNER -- MUSIC

March 06, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Reflections on war and peace, tragedy and hope have busied composers for centuries, leading to the creation of many a work that enjoys the label "timeless."

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society's program Sunday afternoon at Goucher College explored two of those pieces, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. There was also room for the local premiere of a composition that, while not in the same league, offered an eloquent reaction to the events of Sept. 11. The combination of repertoire and subject matter added up to an absorbing experience.

September Sun, by David Conte, has a text by John Stirling Walker that forms an acrostic on the line "God dwells in joy in the midst of sorrow." A prelude and postlude for string orchestra frames the comfortably tonal score. The choral writing is accomplished and telling, especially in the repeated invocations to the sun that shone all that dreadful day when "so many of your dynamic sons and daughters" went to their deaths.

The music makes its points clearly and honestly, if without creating an indelible effect. Given the magnitude of the subject matter, that is enough. Tom Hall led his forces in a confident, communicative performance.

Bernstein was forever carrying on a (presumably) one-sided conversation with God. In 1965, the result was the Chichester Psalms, a mix of praise, faith, doubt and idealism. With its infectious tunefulness, rhythmic energy and imaginative orchestration, the music exerts a humanistic force that Hall tapped into persuasively.

The men in the chorus could have used a little more tonal body, but the ensemble came through vibrantly, as did the orchestra. The pivotal, riveting solo for boy soprano was delivered with remarkable sweetness and sureness by 10-year-old Nicholas Giannasca, a member of the Maryland State Boy Choir.

Haydn's 1798 Mass, a marvel of brevity and expressive power, is associated with one of Lord Nelson's naval victories over Napoleon, but was actually composed before news of that triumph reached Haydn. So the music is more of a cousin to Haydn's Mass In Time of War, written two years earlier. It's a Mass for a fearful, troubled time - like our own.

Hall took the score at a propulsive clip and elicited disciplined singing and colorful playing from the orchestra of strings, trumpets and organ. In the vocal quartet, soprano Susan Consoli's bright, agile voice floated atop the melodic action nicely. Soloman Howard proved even more impressive, his commanding bass giving added weight to the text.

BSO's tapping Twist

Tap dance sensation Savion Glover drew a large, happy audience to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday night to see (and hear) him interpret a suite from Duke Ellington's The River with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I wasn't always persuaded by the connection between Glover's choreographic improv and the music, and I wouldn't have minded if the amplification of the tapping had been toned down (Emily Skala's delicate flute solos didn't stand a chance). But the energetic performance clearly caught the crowd's fancy.

Marin Alsop conducted the dance-themed Symphony with a Twist program. She led the orchestra, on its own, in a snappy account of the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story (the players were awfully wimpy for the shouts of "Mambo," though). A tango from Dominick Argento's The Dream of Valentino was a welcome novelty. So was the big band-style Victory Stride by James P. Johnson; the brass got in some hot licks on that one.

Johnson's famous dance song, "Charleston," wasn't as smooth a fit for full orchestral treatment. And the perky dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts who joined in avoided doing the iconic hands-and-knees crisscross routine that has always screamed Charleston. It was like hearing "The Twist" and seeing people do The Swim.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

For more Music Column online, visit baltimoresun.com.

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