A dusting of snow did not keep a generous crowd from filling the lower level of Jordan Hall for a beautifully conceived and executed concert by the New England Conservatory Concert Choir & Chamber Orchestra last night. One of the great advantages of an education at NEC is the exposure one gains to great teachers and artists, and every chorister on stage last night must be the richer for working with renowned guest conductor Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt. His roles as artistic director and principal conductor of the Westminster Choir College for 33 years and chorus master for the New York Philharmonic are among his many, many qualifications. His mastery was clearly evident and a joy to watch and hear. The program featured three great choral works, the “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri, a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s 20th-century masterpiece, Symphony of Psalms, and a joyous rendition of Mozart’s Mass in C, K. 317, the “Coronation.”
All three works explore sacred texts and center on the pitch “C”. The Verdi is based on a “scala enigmatica” [an unusual musical scale that is composed of major, minor, and whole-tone elements] (according to the program notes, and the All Music Guide). Verdi employs this scale in each voice as a “cantus firmus,” weaving complex chromatic harmonies over it. The large, nearly 85-member chorus performed this work at an impressive piano level, with harmonies well balanced and blended.
This work was followed by Symphony of Psalms. Written during Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical period as a commission for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, this work employs many of the composer’s well-known trademarks: bi-tonality, octatonic scale, and driving rhythm. In particular, in the last movement, where the work tilts between major and minor tonalities, it finally resolves in what is possibly the greatest use of a C-major tonality since Haydn’s Creation.
The chorus again acquitted itself admirably. After the calm, deliberate conducting of the Verdi, one could sense the muscularity of Flummerfelt’s interpretation of the Symphony of Psalms. His conducting is clear, unfussy, and in complete command; one can almost sense the music from his body. Also to be commended were Christina Chao and Sangyoung Kim, duo pianists standing in for the orchestra. They conveyed the glacial coldness and clarity of the fugal opening of the second movement with aplomb.
The program concluded with a warm, happy performance of the Mozart Mass, which featured excellent quartet singing by soprano Shannon Kelly, mezzo-soprano Cristina Bakhoum, tenor Joshua Collier, and bass Gyasi Barber. Kelly’s solo in the “Agnus Dei” was particularly lovely, and her impressive breath control made for some beautifully crafted and long phrases. The chamber orchestra’s accompaniment was in tune; supportive without overpowering the chorus, and stylistically appropriate, particularly the elegant timpani playing of Sean Van Winkle. All in all, an extremely satisfying performance by young artists in the hands of a master.