By Douglas Neslund
Returning to the friendly confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall from a very successful tour of London, Paris, Lucerne and New York City performing the Peter Sellars/John Adams “Gospel According to the Other Mary” that received critical acclaim, the Master Chorale’s Maestro Grant Gershon selected the works of two early 20th century composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc.
In a finely balanced program, the audience was treated to Poulenc’s Salve Regina that served to remind us how much we missed these 62 choristers while they were on the road. Maestro Gershon approached the work with a high degree of sensitivity that allowed the intimate polyphony to work its magic.
Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor is a finely constructed work that seeks to evoke a modal and almost Gregorian flavor in the opening Kyrie eleison, with a solo quartet performing the Christe eleison. Soloists were soprano Hayden Eberhart, mezzo soprano Michele Hemmings, tenor Michael Lichtenauer and bass Scott Lehmkuhl. Keeping in mind that Vaughan Williams wrote the Mass for an Anglican choir of men and boys, Ms. Eberhart was tasked with replacing a treble and Ms. Hemmings a countertenor, with the effect of changing the quartet’s original sound completely. Mr. Lichtenauer was able to accommodate to a less than full-voiced high tessitura and head-tone production more typical of the English tenor. As a quartet, the four were a bit less than ideal as regards blend and balance of their various parts.
Although some entrances were a bit ragged, the choral sections of the Mass were gloriously and antiphonally sung, at times gifting the audience that wonderful “wall of sound” that we have grown to love and anticipate.
After intermission, Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs offered baritone Abdiel Gonzalez a major solo turn that he advantaged to a great extent. His ringing high baritone matched the composer’s requirements to a “t” although some might not prefer his tight, nervous vibrato. Mr. Gonzalez’s musicianship and solid vocal technique serves him well. Accompanying on the organ was Paul Meier, who adjusted the instrument’s sometimes overwhelming power to a fine match with the Master Chorale. Despite the English text so well enunciated by Mr. Gonzalez, the audience was provided above-the-stage text projection.
By far the audience’s (and Master Chorale’s) favorite work of the evening was Poulenc’s sometimes bitter and ironic Figure Humaine (The Face of Humanity) composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France, which required the poet, Paul Éluard, to veil his personal venom against the enemy by couching his lyrics in subtle and oblique language and using a pseudonym or two.
Starting with Bientôt (Soon), Poulenc maintains a musical low profile, creating while avoiding detection as a partisan, but breaks the tension with Le Rôle des Femmes (The Women’s Role). Of particular note is Un Loup (A Wolf) that darkly paints the Nazi presence as predator, while Un feu sans tache (A flawless fire) creates a special challenge for singers and music students alike with its confetti-like leap-note writing, the beauty of which is only revealed in bringing the different vocal parts together, perhaps a symbol for the Resistance.
The final movement entitled “Liberté!” was kept by Poulenc until American troops liberated his country, and although one might expect an outbreak of major tonalities and trumpets-and-drums declamatory choruses, Poulenc instead rides the waves of emotion throughout from ironic to wry hope, from hopeful and finally, to joy, expressed in the final measures by a four-octave E major chord topped by an in-altissimo E performed bang on pitch on this occasion by Karen Hogle Brown. Given the extra measure of energy and passion, it would not be too difficult to assume that a large portion of rehearsal time went into this work, with ultimate success in every respect. Welcome home, Master Chorale!