by Michael Caruso
The first and second weekends of the New Year offered local lovers of choral music the chance to hear two very different choirs in two very different settings and programs.
On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 2, Donald Nally led The Crossing in a concert of contemporary music mostly for women’s chorus in the perfectly-sized Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Then on Saturday evening, Jan. 8, Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale in Mozart’s “Requiem Mass” and Debussy’s “Nocturnes” in the Kimmel Center’s acoustically challenged Verizon Hall. Both concerts drew audiences that literally packed their respective venues. Both were performed expertly. And both offered revelatory insights of their directors and ensembles.
“The Crossing @ Winter” did what virtually every Donald Nally program does — explore choral music composed within the last decade with the occasional foray into long ago — this time 1970! Nally has not only made a specialty of discovering and commissioning new choral music, but he’s also put together programs of these new works that attract many devotees, despite Philadelphia’s reputation as a bastion of musical conservatism.
The notion of doubly limiting a program to contemporary choral music for women’s voices strikes someone unfamiliar with Donald Nally as preposterous, impossible and suicidal. And yet Sunday afternoon’s concert proved otherwise. Contrary to rationally inspired concerns, there was no sense of sameness, even though it wasn’t until the concert’s final work that the women of The Crossing were joined by their male colleagues and a small contingent from Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band.
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holgreen’s “Statements,” from 1970 and the program’s oldest work, revealed delicate lyricism and a sweetness of tone. David Lang was represented by several scores. And Erika Esenvalds’ “Long Road,” for full chorus and recorders, rounded out the program with such warmth and eloquence that one was surprised to find out it was written in 2010.
Of course, none of these works would have come off successfully in concert were it not for the spectacular singing Nally elicited from The Crossing. It transformed what could have been a dry survey of contemporary choral music into a revelatory glimpse into the mind, heart, spirit and soul of cutting-edge composers sharing their insights on the world.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director-designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the ensemble, four vocal soloists and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale in performances of Mozart’s “Requiem Mass” and Debussy’s “Nocturnes” in four performances this past weekend in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Three concerts had originally been scheduled, but a fourth was added to accommodate the popularity of the orchestra’s charismatic new maestro.
I caught Saturday night’s rendition and came away overwhelmed by Nezet-Seguin’s natural musicality and technical skill, even if I wasn’t too taken or convinced by his interpretation of the Mozart or moved by his take on the Debussy.
My quibbling with his approach to the Mozart “Requiem” is thoroughly subjective, of course, because I can’t help but admire Nezet-Seguin as a conductor who can elicit the kind of singing and playing he wants. He conducted the obviously complex score by memory. And remember that he is only 35 years old. Yet there wasn’t a moment or a note or a word over which he wasn’t exercising precise control.
He elicited thrilling, focused playing from the Philadelphians and soaring singing from the Singers chorale. And two of his four vocal soloists — soprano Lucy Crowe and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams — sang powerfully.
What I didn’t warm to was Nezet-Seguin’s apparent decision to use the Latin text of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the “Requiem Mass” for its phonetic value as morsels of vocal sound, tone and timbre rather than for its delineation of faith in salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. Each syllable sung was so pointedly projected that one heard each word without necessarily feeling the spirit behind those words. Some phrases were so sharply aurally etched that their meaning was lost. The music-making was surely visceral but not tellingly spiritual, as it should have been.