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Surprises, Haziness Sprung from Masterworks Chorale


It was a beautiful spring day in May, the kind you want to bottle up, so clear and fresh the air and the vivid colors all around. A program of choral music by American composers, moderns, as they would be called, sounded like they’d be a perfect for such a Sunday afternoon. Masterworks Chorale, men in resplendent tuxes, women in matching black gowns draped with crimson sashes took the stage at Sanders Theatre on Sunday, May 16, with Steven Karidoyanes, Music Director, to present “The American Five: Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and Ives.”

Surprises popped up like spring growth can do here in New England. The wow of the afternoon display goes to pianist, Leslie Amper—yes, I said pianist. Karidoyanes informed us that going from Charles Ives to more choral music might not work so well and so a break from singing was in order.

I have never, ever heard George Gershwin’s Preludes so wonderfully delivered as I did with Amper at the keyboard. She zipped through the first tough prelude, making it look and sound easy. It had all those neat bustling New York street rhythms from the earlier decades of the 20th century. In the second prelude, a brooding left hand played offish to a handsome singing right hand fully warm. Then followed that middle section in the major key with its mildly pulsing chords behind a gentlemanly, blues-ish and altogether attractive jazz utterance. Even zippier was Gershwin’s third prelude, Amper springing up off the piano bench on the ultimate outrageously sultry keyboard outbursts. Wow! American magic, these two!

And there was another surprise in this “choral garden” and that was the voice of countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, who emitted one gorgeous mellifluousness after another. His vowels, in every register they appeared, sprouted into the loveliest of sounds you can imagine, always pure and innocent, and perfect for this spring afternoon, a season that marks birth, an inward breath — the inspiration. This, he accomplished in Leonard Bernstein’s The Lark, a kind of history relived, the earlier eras of music history reseeded. Narrator Holly Samuels got the right feel of the intervening text, setting up the out-of-order song sequence starting with “French Choruses” and ending with “Latin Choruses.” It was quite a close with the chorus in the “Gloria” verging on real cacophony accompanied by clustered chiming from the percussionist.

The most chorally satisfying music on this program came from Samuel Barber and his Reincarnations: “Mary Hynes,” “Anthony O’Daly” and “The Coolin (The Fair Haired Ones).” The 89-member Masterworks Chorale spirited through the “she” lines of the first piece and impressed with a diminuendo to a finely tuned chord with sopranos way up top. In the second piece, drone-like repetitions from the men contrasted sharply with the ever bright timbre of the sopranos. The “Coolin” opened excellently but ended in somewhat of a blur.

The 89 vibratos and timbres might explain the overall sound produced by the Masterworks Chorale, the resulting sonic haziness. Simpler harmonies fared better, the more complex not so well. The bimodal setting of the 67th Psalm of New England’s Charles Ives, pitting the upper voices in one key against the lower voices in another key, shed a bit of the haziness, but a laden quality pervaded.

Puzzling was the arrangement of the voices: sopranos to the audience’s left facing in diagonally toward the conductor, altos to the audience’s right also facing in diagonally toward the conductor, basses and tenors dead center facing the audience, with spaces between men and the women. When the music was particularly conducive to spatial projection, such as in imitative passages as those in the fugal section of Bernstein’s “Prelude” from The Lark, this configuration was completely satisfactory. For creating blend though, it was another matter. Unison singing of Charles Ives’s songs left much to be desired.

“Stomp your foot up on the floor.

Throw the windows open,

Take a breath of fresh June air, and dance around the room.

The air is free, the night is warm,

The music’s here, and here’s my home.”

That’s how this program ended. It was Aaron Copland’s music from The Tender Land.

If you think there’s power in numbers and if you like talk from the conductor’s corner , as in music lessons, then you might want to give this precision-oriented chorus a listen. Be aware that they are moving from Sundays to Friday nights next season.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. I applaud Mr. Patterson for bringing up the issue of blend and focus in American choral singing. While standards here have been evolving over the last generation, there are still important differences between many American and European choirs: even highly rated professional groups here are known to turn away from the European taste for blended, unanimous choral timbre and to allow, or even feature, the accumulation of many soloistic techniques and colors within a single choir section. As this review points out, more can be less. Concatenating together a number of “large,” vibrato-laden voices often produces, counterintuitively one might say, a smokier and less focussed ensemble sound, and can make accurate tuning fiendishly difficult. This is an interesting conversation around an important issue.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 18, 2010 at 3:29 am

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