in: Reviews

May 12, 2012

Masterworks Chorale Resurrects King David


Times have changed. It used to be not at all unusual to encounter the music of Arthur Honegger. Friday night, at Sanders Theatre, Masterworks Chorale brought back more than just memories. Its performance of King David, while at times enrapturing, thoroughly reawakened that particular sense of religious fervor of a time gone by. A special kind of applause is due Music Director Steven Karidoyanes for pulling off such an evening.

Stirring narration from Ron Williams completely lifted up the dramatic oratorio through his effective mix of old and new delivery styles. His baritone voice set the perfect tonality for Honegger’s 1921 symphonic psalm.

The Masterworks Chorale carried off both worldly and ethereal biblical themes ever so convincingly, such as in the rousing “Dance before the Ark” and the contrite “Behold in evil I was born.” Better still, all the singing was in English, relating more vividly the story of David from his days as a shepherd until his death as a king.

Of the twenty-seven songs and marches, tableaux, that the oratorio comprises, “The Psalm of Penitence” might be one of the most touching of all of Honegger’s settings. In a kind of antiphony, men’s then women’s voices chant over a repeating single chord, “Pity me, God, in my distress! Turn not away, but heal me again!” Using the original orchestration, Karidoyanes directed the instrumentalists and voices to a higher plane where there was abundant making of music and meaning.

In pure, clear-throated tones very much like the beautiful birdsongs of cardinals, Jason McStoots delivered the three Psalms Honegger set for tenor. Teresa Wakim’s soprano voice conveyed an angelic and deeply felt pureness in the concluding song “The Death of David” with its Bach chorale overtones.  Mezzo-soprano Krista River provided worldly nuance for “Song of the Handmaid” that played intelligently off the Swiss-French composer’s forward-looking, yet always appealing harmonic language. Looking the part of the Witch of Endor, Paula Plum was a bit over the top for me — her theatrics going beyond the decorum of the whole.

The orchestra of mostly winds and percussion drawn from Boston’s most amazing pool of musicians, summoned up sonority upon sonority along with sharp-edged excitement for a virtually flawless King David. During certain moments of Honegger’s personalized scoring and the orchestra’s own voicing, I was reminded of the sounds of jazz band master, Gil Evans. Balance between chorus and orchestra wavered more in the early going than in the third and final part of evening-long oratorio. While the singers did all they could to create the kind of presence needed, the orchestra often needed toning down to help foster a presence so all important for drama-making.

Also coming to mind were Lili Boulanger’s inspirational psalm settings for chorus and orchestra that were composed about the same time and that Hollywood took to in its religious epics dating from the fifties.  In his brief welcome and introduction to the concert, Karidoyanes informed us that Stravinsky was first to be asked to write incidental music for Swiss poet and playwright René Morax’s play, “Le roi David.” Turning down the offer, Stravinsky said something to the effect of “go to Honegger.”

Disappointing was the sparse turnout for a once extremely popular and often performed work — “a hit,” as Karidoyanes remarked. At intermission, two concertgoers related their own experiences with King David: quite a few years ago, one performed it while in high school and another while in college. About that same time, I first encountered Honegger’s “hit” in a church. Those were the days. Nearly a half century later, I find myself wondering what would King David be like with the addition of, say, background visuals projected on a screen. What with Honegger’s penchant and adeptness for musical image painting (think of Pacific 231 and Rugby), does this work not call out for such enticement or enhancement for today’s listeners?

Ed. Note: Edited in response to comment.

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.


  1. *I completely agree that this was a great performance by the Masterworks Chorale and the freelance instrumentalists.  There was, alas, no Treble Chorus of New England.  We thought the Witch of Endor was one of the most memorable things about this performance. The narrator, Ron Williams, was tremendous.  We also rued the many empty seats. 

    Comment by Susan Miron — May 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm

  2. I posted elsewhere that I attended the Met in HD showing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport Friday night.  Otherwise, I considered seeing “King David” that night.  It was performed by the Cantata Singer several years ago, a performance I attended and I enjoyed it very much…especially Lynn Torgove’s amazing (a word overused these days but one that accurately describes her singing then) performance.  It might make for an interesting article to discuss some mid-20th Century staples of the classical repertoire that have fallen out of favor:  WILLIAM Schuman’s Third Symphony for example;  Ernst Bloch’s “Schelomo”  etc.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — May 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm

  3. I wish I’d been there to hear King David.  One can’t help liking this richly varied work with all its beauties and all its flaws.  In 1959, when I was in college, I took part in a performance by the New England Independents Schools’ Chorus, conducted by Lorna Cooke de Varon in Rindge Auditorium in Cambridge — I played tambourine — and this performance was billed as an American premiere of the original version of the score, with chamber orchestra.  Decades later, I played celesta and organ in another performance of the same version, at Tufts University, conducted by Betsy Burleigh.

    I have to rely absolutely on memory for the following, but I think it might have been in Elie Siegmeister’s Music Lover’s Companion that an interview described how Honegger came to write King David in a great hurry, on a commission with a short deadline.  The gist of what Honegger said was like this: “First I thought I’d write a lot of neoclassical tonal counterpoint, but I soon realized I didn’t have time to work all that out.  Then I thought I could write a score with heavy primitivist crunchy harmony — but I couldn’t do that either, too many notes to write.”  “So what did you do then?” asked the interviewer.  Honegger replied, “Oh, I just fell back on Massenet.” 

    Honegger may have said all this in jest, but I’m convinced I know exactly what he was referring to.  The “neoclassical counterpoint” is the neo-Handelian no. 3, the psalm, “All praise to him, the Lord of glory,” text after Marot (“Loué soit le Seigneur”).   The “heavy primitivist harmony” would be no. 13, the March of the Philistines.   And the Massenet?  That would be the chorale melody in the final chorus, “And God said, one day shall dawn” / “Dieu te dit un jour viendra”, which is almost identical with the “Choral protestant” in Massenet’s Scènes alsaciennes — Massenet doesn’t identify it but it’s really a variant of “Sleepers, wake.”

    The one place where Honegger seriously fell down in King David was his failure to write a glowing scene for David and Bathsheba.  “The Song of the Handmaid” (no. 18) is all that there is of this historic lustful encounter.  The penitential psalms, nos. 19 and 20 (“Pity me, God, in my distress”), are pretty feeble too.  I’m sure that Honegger tried hard and gave up, when he knew that he had to finish the piece on time.   He should have gone back to it, for instance when he was rearranging the whole work for full orchestra. 

    But what he did accomplish, though it’s very uneven, is impressive and even delightful.  King David is well worth a resurrection.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — May 14, 2012 at 10:56 am

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