The South Florida Christmas season brings temperatures that dip into the upper 50s, endless accounts of “Mi Burrito Sabanero” on Spanish-language radio stations and a performance somewhere of Handel’s Messiah.
This time it was the Master Chorale of South Florida at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, giving a fleet, energetic account of Handel’s classic that was distinguished by an outstanding quartet of vocal soloists.
Under Brett Karlin, the Chorale’s artistic director and conductor, the ensemble performed a version that was heavily cut to make for a compact, intermission-free concert. The cuts removed most of the middle section dealing with Christ’s passion and death, which had the effect of lightening the work by taking out most of its darker, more introspective passages.
There were sufficient Messiah veterans in attendance at the Broward Center to lead the audience in the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, a practice of murky provenance that may have begun at an early London performance, when King George II rose for the chorus. When the king stands, no one sits.
The excellent soloists each brought their own vocal personalities to the parts.
Tenor Steven Soph brought smooth tone and agile ornamentations to “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” He sang with biting aggression and drama in “Thou shalt break them,” bringing extra urgency and force to the word “break” in a manner that elevated the passage to high drama.
When the baritone Hadleigh Adams made his entrance, with a stern, declamatory and fortissimo “Thus saith the Lord,” a couple audience members visibly jumped in their seats. After the mellow, fluid tones of the tenor, these words came as a game changer, intense and operatic. He gave a stirring account of the slow crescendo of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” and brought a darkly gleaming upper register to “Behold I tell you a mystery.”
The countertenor Reginald Mobley, a familiar figure on South Florida stages as former longtime member of Seraphic Fire, brought pure tones and a sustained legato to “But who may abide the day of his coming?” He too caught fire in the rapid passages that followed, enunciating the high-speed words with crisp consonants.
The soprano Yetzabel Arias was the only one of the four soloists whose diction occasionally made the words hard to make out. But she brought a rich, luxuriant voice to her solos, with an especially expressive “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
The performance by the chorus was strikingly transparent and light for an ensemble of more than 120 singers. Entrances in “And the Glory of the Lord” were clear without disturbing the ensemble’s rounded, soft-edged tone. Singing was buoyant and joyful in “Unto us a child is born.”
In the Hallelujah Chorus, Karlin led a dynamic, carefully calibrated performance with suspenseful dips in volume that allowed the triumphant passages to emerge with that much more force. There were times when more weight and power seemed needed to bring off this music in all its ceremonial glory, but this was still a rousing account.
The unnamed pickup orchestra was clearly well-rehearsed and provided firm support to the chorus. If intonation in the strings occasionally wavered, the musicians gave spirited, accurate accounts of the orchestra’s stand-alone sections.
South Florida Classical Review
The 15th anniversary season of the Master Chorale of South Florida opened with a performance of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem on Saturday night at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. And there was cause for celebration.
Formed out of the remnants of the Florida Philharmonic Chorus after that orchestra’s disbanding, the chorus has weathered unstable seasons with a changing roster of conductors. Brett Karlin is now in his fifth season as artistic director and the change he has achieved in the 120-member group has been impressive. Karlin has transformed the choir into a cohesive ensemble that performs on a consistently high level. The group’s male voices, once the choir’s weak point, are now strong and secure. Moreover Karlin is an intelligent interpreter of diverse choral repertoire which this concert aptly illustrated.
The Master Chorale had sung most of the evening’s program Saturday morning at the American Choral Directors Conference in Orlando, so it was a long day for the chorus members. The finely responsive performance Saturday night under these circumstances attested to the high standards and esprit de corps Karlin has instilled.
The program opened with Invictus by Joshua Rist, a work often performed by collegiate choirs. A dark, throbbing opening turns to strains of hope and uplift in this brief vignette that demonstrated the chorus’s well blended corporate sound. Cellist Manuel Capote added depth of sonority to the keyboard underpinning.
Timothy Brumfield switched from piano in the Rist work to the sanctuary’s mighty pipe organ for his own Improvisation on a Gregorian Chant. Currently organist and choirmaster at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, Brumfield has been a longtime member of the Paul Winter Consort and former organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. He is a master of the instrument. After a solo soprano voice sang the chant Ubi caritas unadorned from the back of the sanctuary, Brumfield launched into a fantasia that ranged from the softly introspective to the full flamboyance of a theater organist, before returning to a quiet restatement of the ancient melody.
Associate conductor Steven Hirner took the podium for “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How beautiful is Thy Dwelling place), the fourth movement from Brahms’ A German Requiem. With Karlin singing in the male contingent, Hirner maintained a flowing line and brought clarity to the contrapuntal writing.
The world premiere of Death, Be Not Proud by Chicago-based composer James Kallembach was the first of a series of annual commissions in memory of the late Roslyn Osborne, underwritten by her family. (Osborne was a singer in the Master Chorale and a member of its board of directors.) Brumfield’s grand, ceremonial organ introduction commenced Kallembach’s full-voiced setting of the iconic text by John Donne. The score is alternately tragic, moving and stirring in tone. Karlin’s forces sang Kallembach’s melodically rich work superbly.
Duruflé’s Requiem is one of the most unique and distinctive scores in the choral repertoire. The 1947 mass was the first of Duruflé’s limited output of published works. While often compared to Fauré’s Requiem, Duruflé’s setting is more austere. The entire work is based on the melody of a Gregorian chant which Duruflé melds with contemporary musical impulses. The work’s often unsettled harmonics suggests the influences of such twentieth-century French composers as Albert Roussel and the young Henri Dutilleux.
Karlin led a spacious performance that did full justice to the calm serenity of Duruflé’s beautiful writing. Singing with minimal vibrato, the female voices brought sweetness to the long- limbed melodies.
The score’s few big climactic outbursts resounded with terrific force in the sanctuary’s reverberant acoustics. Karlin emphasized the sudden moments of dissonance in the third section “Domine Jesu Christe,” ably seconded by Brumfield at the console. The “Sanctus” brings the score’s big tune, which was sung with felicitous blending. Duruflé’s carol-like setting of “Lux aeterna” emerged with charm offset by hints of darkness in the unresolved tonality of the organ part.
Karlin brought out the drama in the restrained plea for mercy of the “Libera me,” one of the few times in the score that Brumfield’s organ sonority rose to full power. The concluding “In Paradisum” was exquisitely balanced and articulated.
Mezzo soprano Kate Maroney’s solo “Pie Jesu” was one of the highlights of the performance. With a pure and vibratoless timbre, Maroney sang with deep feeling and intense musicality, abetted by the dark tone of Capote’s cello.
There is only one remaining performance of this singular score. The entire program was a tribute to the splendid performing unit Karlin has built and a hopeful harbinger of great things to come for the Master Chorale.
Palm Beach ArtsPaper
As it begins its 15th season of concerts, the Master Chorale of South Florida has added another element to its music-making, that of commissioner of new work.
On Sunday, the community chorale presented the first piece in what promises to be an annual series of new choral works with a setting of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” composed by James Kallembach, who heads the choral activities at the University of Chicago and has an extensive worklist of vocal pieces to his credit.
The piece begins with a Baroque-flavored gesture in the organ that sets the stage for a forceful, stern setting of Donne’s familiar sonnet. There are some interesting textures such as the two patterns that combine in the section beginning “Thou art slave to fate,” and overall Kallembach has captured the poet’s defiance admirably. It’s a piece that would be welcome in programs by ambitious choirs looking for fresh music, and its modernistic but accessible language goes down easy, as the warm reception by the large crowd at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton demonstrated.
The central piece on Sunday’s program (and the Saturday before in Fort Lauderdale) was the Requiem of the 20th-century French composer Maurice Duruflé, which now enjoys repertory status, having been embraced by choral groups hither and yon. Artistic director Brett Karlin built his program around the idea of mortality and how we deal with it, and in remarks that had a professorial and near-evangelical flavor, he discussed the power of the day’s texts and encouraged his listeners to give them serious thought.
Opening the program was “Invictus,” a setting of the well-known William Ernest Henley poem (“I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”) by the young (b. 1988) American composer Joshua Rist, who wrote the work while a student at Oregon State University. It is written in a pop-dramatic style congruent with film scores for dark epics like Batman or Game of Thrones, which is not meant as a dismissal. This is the lingua franca of much tonal classicism today, and while the piece contains no surprises, it has an immediately approachable sweep that was magnified by the heft of the large Master Chorale.
Associate conductor Steven Hirner took the stage next to lead the chorale in the fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” of Brahms’s German Requiem, which will be sung in full by the chorale in May of next year. This is a beautiful piece of late Romantic writing that couches its words (from Psalm 84, “How lovely are thy dwelling places”) in a gentle, quietly radiant waltz.
Hirner’s tempo was on the slow side, and the music sounded a little heavier than is ideal. There was some gratifyingly good singing from the tenors and basses in their exposed writing after the opening phrase, which suggested promising things for next spring, when the chorale performs it with the Lynn Philharmonia.
Sandwiched between the Brahms and the Rist works was an organ solo by Timothy Brumfield, who accompanied the chorus and directs musical activities at St. Gregory’s. Aiming to demonstrate something of Duruflé’s technique in the Requiem, which is based on ancient Gregorian chant melodies, Karlin asked Brumfield to take the chant melody for “Ubi caritas” (which Duruflé used for his most popular short choral work) and make an improvisatory fantasy out of it. He complied with a big, bravura essay that made ample use of the lowest pedal tones in the St. Gregory’s organ, and in which the original chant melody could be easily discerned.
The Duruflé Requiem (Op. 9) has a special sound, strongly influenced by Fauré but also with its own timeless quality, which gives it a unique kind of delicacy that is not only quintessentially French but deeply informed by the traditions of the Catholic Church. Even when it’s going full out (as in the middle of the “Domine Jesu Christe”) it still is restrained by the elegance of Duruflé’s language — the technical aspects of which Karlin demonstrated by asking Brumfield to play a simple D major triad and then add the second and sixth degrees of the scale to it.
The chorale sounded strong and well-drilled, with a confident sound and few signs of tentativeness despite the often elusive quality of this music. With that came a certain lack of subtlety; things sounded a bit labored, a shade heavy throughout. Mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney gave a fine reading, with excellent work as well from cellist Manuel Capote, of the “Pie Jesu,” which also showed that the deliberate quality that the rest of the performance had might have been leavened somewhat had the chorale the luxury of an orchestral accompaniment.
But this is a large community chorus made up primarily of enthusiastic non-professionals, and they, Karlin and Hirner, should be commended for presenting an engaging reading of this lovely work, and for raising their game even more by taking on the responsibility of presenting new pieces.
Bach's Mass in B minor
Brett Karlin conducted the Master Chorale of South Florida in Bach’s Mass in B minor Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.
Bach’s Mass in B Minor ranks with—and many would say above–Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ German Requiem as one of the world’s greatest choral works.
The Master Chorale of South Florida performed Bach’s masterpiece Friday at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, giving a performance that while far from perfect, brought out both the depths and joyous heights of this great work.
There were some blurry entrances, uneven solo work and intonation problems in The Symphonia’s violins. But artistic director and conductor Brett Karlin’s assured leadership and deep sense of the music’s structure–along with some inspired singing and brilliant work by some of the orchestral musicians–yielded a performance that expressed the mass’s grandeur, mystery and exaltation.
Particularly strong was the sequence that relates Christ’s birth, crucifixion and resurrection. Against a stark, spare accompaniment in the orchestra in Et incarnatus est, Karlin led a performance that was full of mystery and darkness. He paced the Crucifixus brilliantly, generating a pulsing, almost imperceptible build up in this searching, otherworldly music, setting up a great expression of joy and light in the Et resurrexit.
From the massed voices of the chorus, the sound was full, rounded and well blended, with a natural flow to the singing that provided a warmly human element to music that can come across as ethereal and otherworldly. At times entrances were crisp and distinct, at other times, such as in the counterpoint of the Kyrie, they were muddy and unfocused.
The baritone Paul Max Tipton brought a smooth, refined voice to his solo passages. But from a row toward the back, his singing was underprojected, lacking the bite and power to cut through the orchestra. This was particularly stark in Quoniam tu solus sanctus, in which the highlight was the supple and robust horn playing of Brett Miller. This may have been a problem more with the church’s acoustics, since a similar lack of projection came from the otherwise strong, affecting performance of the tenor Dann Coakwell.
Higher voices came through more clearly. Soprano Jolle Greenleaf’s solo in Laudamus te was agile and light in its jubilant expression of praise for God. And countertenor Douglas Dodson’s glossy voice was a highlight, particularly in Qui sedes, in which his tones harmonized effectively with the solo oboe.
The highlight from the orchestra came from the three trumpet players. Their radiant, but never overbearing playing, provided the joyous top to those passages of religious exaltation of which Bach was a master, such as the Gloria, Cum Sancto Spiritu and Gratias agimus tibi. In the Gratias, Karlin led a stirring crescendo, with ascending voices, trumpet and a rolling timpani combined for one of the work’s most stirring passages.
Lord Nelson Mass
The Master Chorale of South Florida closed its current season with a remarkably energetic and gritty Haydn mass that said positive things about the chorus and augured good things for its future.
Joined by a chamber orchestra from the Lynn Philharmonia in its concert May 1 at Lynn’s Wold Center for the Performing Arts, the Master Chorale and four fine soloists gave a bracing account of the Lord Nelson Mass, handling its many passages of contrapuntal complexity with confidence and vigor.
In addition, the concert opened with a surprise: the first movement of the Symphony No. 25 (in G minor, K. 183) of Mozart, played very ably by the Lynn student musicians. It made a strong case for the idea of creating a separate chamber ensemble at Lynn that could present additional concerts of smaller-forces repertoire like this piece.
Karlin led the Mozart with great energy, bouncing up and down on his heels as he moved the music along through its dramatic high points. The horns, which play such a key role in the echo of the second half of the main theme, sounded good and strong, and the oboist was equally fine. Karlin’s tempo struck me as just right, a tempo that unleashed the remarkable power of this work by the teenage Mozart, one of his first great compositions.
Karlin could have given the music a bit more dramatic contrast; the pianissimo tag before the reentrance of the strings would have been even more effective had it been a little softer. But that’s a minor thing; here was a good performance by a host of young people of a brilliant piece of Viennese Classicism, and I would have been happy to hear the whole thing, not just the first movement.
The four soloists in the Lord Nelson Mass, all of excellent caliber, included soprano Meredith Ruduski, mezzo Misty Bermudez, tenor Steven Soph and bass-baritone Douglas Williams. Ruduski, who has to jump into operatic flourishes almost immediately in the opening “Kyrie,” has a high-floating, very pretty and rounded soprano that took the high As and B-flats of the first movement easily, and navigated the virtuosic runs of the movement with accuracy and flair. She has a strong vibrato that adds another edge to a voice that is generally on the lighter lyrical side and well-suited for this music, as she showed in the way she sang the softly falling triplets in the “Et resurrexit.”
Bermudez’s dark mezzo added some beautiful color to the “Benedictus” and the “Agnus Dei,” where in her solo work she demonstrated an admirable smoothness of line and sensitivity. Tenor Soph doesn’t have as much exposed writing in this Mass, but his clear and clarion voice matched well with bass Williams, and when the whole quartet sang, you could hear the depth and potency of all four singers.
Williams was the find of the day, with an absolutely beautiful reading of the “Qui tollis” (which surely inspired the “Tuba mirum” of the Mozart Requiem) that showcased a voice of dark-honey color and substantial presence. This solo covers a wide range of about two octaves, and Williams’s voice had a gratifying evenness that was effective at the very top and bottom as much as in the middle. His phrasing, too, was masterful, and exemplary for Haydn’s late style.
Yet still the most important thing about the concert was the singing of the Master Chorale overall. The Lord Nelson Mass is not easy in any sense of the word; it has a great deal of counterpoint and difficult fugal writing, and it can be tortuous to listen to in amateur performances. But you would be hard-pressed to say that the chorus on stage May 1 was made up of professionals in other fields who sing for the love of it. This Mass must have been presented to them by Karlin as a massive challenge that they would have to meet, because this large group rose to the occasion and rose impressively.
It was most evident in passages such as the In gloria Dei Patris of the “Quoniam tu solus sanctis,” which starts with a fugue subject in the basses, imitated by the tenors two bars later. The men sang with virility and confidence, moving right into the music without divulging its difficulty. The counterpoint that follows is knotty and tricky, but the men and women of the Master Chorale brought it off without evident strain. And they did so throughout the piece; at no time did Haydn’s complexities sound like they were beyond the chorus’s abilities.
In past years, the Master Chorale has presented large choral works that didn’t involve the chorus enough, and left the heavy lifting to the soloists. The Lord Nelson Mass is a workout for soloists and chorus, and it was a joy to the chorus singing so much, and working so hard. This was an ideal selection for this group, and Karlin had clearly rehearsed them expertly.
The group has two major works in store for next season: the Bach B minor Mass and Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette. That’s a tall order by any stretch of the imagination, but the Chorale has the right leader in Karlin, and he has that crucial blend of enthusiasm and discipline that inspires people to do their best work. That was everywhere in evidence at the Wold that Sunday, and it promises an exciting future for this community chorus.