in: Reviews

March 18, 2013

Spring Fancies Turn to Requiems

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At this time of year when green shoots bespeak life’s renewal, the Back Bay Chorale, curiously enough, gave us apocalypse and death. Seriously, does no one else think it’s slightly daft that come Spring, all the choral groups trot out requiems? It was not just a requiem this time (Mozart and Süssmayr’s), but also the premiere of an oratorio whose texts tell of ice, flood, doom and wanton destruction which were on order at Sanders Theatre on St. Gertrude’s Day, better known as March 17th.

The oratorio came first: the local premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Anything Can Happen (2011) for baritone, viola and chorus (a highly imaginative and evocative scoring). It sets three poems of Seamus Heaney alternating with two passages from the Injil, the Arabic telling of the Gospel of Jesus. The Heaney poems, “In Iowa,” a Frostian chilly scene of winter with a surprise Biblical-style peroration; “Höfn,” contemplating inundation and inhumation from a melting glacier; and the title piece, that uses imagery of destruction “from the blue” alluding both to classical mythology and the 9/11 attacks, pair with the Passion scene of the rending of the temple veil and the vision of the woman, the dragon and the flood corresponding to Revelation 12. Additional background on this work can be found in Craig Hughes’s BMInt article here.

Fairouz’s writing is never less than skillful, and is frequently stirring and disturbing. His use of the solo viola (elegantly played by the Juilliard Quartet’s Roger Tapping) as a “fifth voice” is an intriguing concept, though the writing was so idiomatic for the instrument that it was hard to hear it in vocal terms. Often, it featured arpeggiation in fifths (perfect, augmented and diminished) to weave an open lattice against which the vocal parts grew. The latter were variously lyrical, mysterious, urgent, furious and frenzied. The baritone soloist, the peripatetic David Kravitz, was authoritatively patriarchal in “In Iowa’s” prophetic pronouncements, elegant in the cantillation of the Injil passages (which Fairouz set in Arabic), and dramatic throughout; his diction (well, at least in the English bits where we could tell) was excellent. The chorale, under Music Director Scott Allen Jarrett, was equally dramatic, colorful, doleful, declamatory and, to a lesser extent, contrapuntal (it seemed that whenever Fairouz started a contrapuntal passage he ended it quickly). This is a piece deserving of further hearings: there are evident depths to plumb, and a surface that invites the effort to do so.

The second half of the program was given over to the Requiem in D Minor, K.626, mostly by Mozart, most of the rest by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and a little bit by Joseph von Eybler. Despite numerous subsequent completions, including one by Mozart scholar and BMInt adviser Robert Levin, the Süssmayr version remains the most often performed. So much has been written about this masterpiece that we make no attempt to contribute anything, being scholastically unequipped to do so, other than to mention a thought we hadn’t had before, that it’s interesting to compare Mozart’s rather compact writing in each section to the more symphonically structured and elaborated movements of Haydn’s late masses, and to note the relatively large number of fugues employed (even if you don’t count Süssmayr’s repeat of the Kyrie fugue for the Lux æterna). Some scholars think Mozart was looking back to Handel for his inspiration here.

Mozart’s orchestration was studied and quite striking: except for trumpets, omitting the highest-pitched winds (flutes and oboes), Mozart concentrated his non-string forces in the lower ranges. He substituted basset horns for clarinets (alas, this performance attempted to make do with clarinets—not so noticeable when part of the ensemble, but not as nice, if you know the original, when taking solo lines), with bassoons, three trombones against two trumpets, timpani, and (also omitted in this performance) organ. The orchestra for this performance, featuring top Boston freelancers, was spot on. The notable trombone solo in the Tuba mirum was fluidly and gorgeously played by whichever of Hans Bohn, John Faieta or Mark Rohr played the tenor; and we should commend Robert Schulz’s crisply articulated and well modulated timpani playing (especially nice in the soft spots). In the vocal solo parts, Kravitz was joined by soprano Teresa Wakim, alto Misty Bermudez, and tenor Stefan Reed, all four of whom were exceptional. Wakim used a fairly pared-down vibrato, Bermudez was all clarity and radiance, Reed was robust an impassioned, and Kravitz creamy and highly sensitive to the dramatics of the text; intonation was perfect, diction excellent, the drama well conveyed. The chorus likewise was remarkable for its cohesion, clarity and dramatic flair. Jarrett was clear and carefully shaped phrasing and micro-dynamics. He observed fairly moderate tempi and kept things moving, taking only minimal pauses between movements and sections. Our only reservation had to do with tempo and dynamics in the larger sense: there seemed to be a standard “fast” and a standard “slow” speed, and while individual lines and phrases were nicely molded dynamically, larger sections also seemed to suffer from too much consistency in what constituted loud and soft. Still, it was a highly satisfying and impressive performance, and even if the sun was shining and the daffodil shoots venturing skyward, it was good to know that death and doom were in such capable hands that we could put the subjects out of our minds afterwards.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

1 Comment

  1. FYI, the trombone soloist in the Tuba Mirum was John Faieta. If the program’s personnel page has got it right, it will list the trombone players in order: alto, tenor, bass.

    Having heard that solo from the next seat over upwards of 40 times, I agree: one of the best, and most musical, that I have ever heard. Bravo, John!

    Comment by Mark Rohr — March 21, 2013 at 6:48 am

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