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?