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.
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.