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Voices Unheard

Choral program may go unrecognized as one of the best events of the season

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By Marcel Smith

Nashville Symphony Chorus & Austin Peay Chamber Chorus

8 p.m. Wed. Dec. 13

War Memorial Auditorium

For ticket information, call 255-9600

Most classical music concerts in our city offer music that many people already know very well; very few offer anything new. The common explanation is that if audiences don’t already know the music, they won’t come. But even modern pop stars, whose fans pack stadiums to sing along with familiar hits, will try out new material in front of a live audience. So why doesn’t the city’s preeminent classical ensemble do the same?

In fairness, the Nashville Symphony has been known to try out new things, but inevitably such programs are given much less attention than crowd-pleasing events like Don McLean’s recent appearance with the ensemble. Take, for instance, the Symphony’s upcoming concert in War Memorial Auditorium. This program will be sung in an acoustically fine venue—much better than any hall at TPAC. It will juxtapose two very different pieces of music that complement each other very well—one a recognized baroque masterwork, the other a scarcely known 20th-century masterwork. And it will debut a new subset of the Symphony Chorus—a 28-voice select ensemble called the Nashville Chamber Chorus.

The Chamber Chorus comprises about 15 percent of the whole Symphony Chorus. According to choral director George Mabry, all are solo-quality voices selected via audition, and all have the requisite vocal skills and stamina. The new group debuts at War Memorial with J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, a strenuously melismatic and contrapuntal cantata. This will be the evening’s climax. In the first half of the evening, the full chorus will showcase a quite different sound: Ottorino Respighi’s Laud for the Nativity. The evening promises to be memorable, and yet it has received little advance publicity.

Bach wrote the Magnificat in 1723 in E-flat for five soloists, chorus, and an orchestra of strings and woodwinds. Seven years later, he rewrote the cantata in D major and added the brilliance of trumpets. (Bach’s trumpets had no valves and were tuned in D; this made them nearly impossible to play in his original key.) This latter version is the one to be sung.

The title comes from the cantata’s Latin text—from the moment in the Gospel of Luke when the young virgin Mary learns from an angel that she is to be the mother of God. She replies, Magnificat anima mea dominum (“my soul magnifies the Lord”). In 12 sections, each about 90 measures long, the cantata is a sustained and exultant affirmation, a marvel of invention using a chorus and five soloists both separately and together to weave a musical texture that perpetually surprises and delights.

For this performance, the Nashville Chamber Chorus will be joined by the 28-voice Austin Peay Chamber Chorus. All 56 singers, Mabry says, possess able and experienced solo-quality voices. The additional featured soloists have sung often in Music City—sopranos Julie Wolf and Sharon Mabry, mezzo Barbie McCulloch, tenor Brad Diamond, and bass Alan Henderson. Joining these voices will be some 40 members of the Nashville Symphony. Mabry will conduct.

The Bach is the dramatic climax of an evening that begins when the full chorus processes into the Auditorium singing the jubilant 16th-century Latin hymn “Personent Hodie.” Once onstage, they will sing two additional hymns—the second a lovely Brazilian carol in an arrangement by Mabry himself.

This first half of the evening concludes with the Respighi. A prolific composer in a variety of forms, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is best known for two orchestral tone poems, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, in which his metabolizing of older masters (Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Richard Strauss) is evident. That nutriment is also evident in the rarely heard Laud for the Nativity (1930), which ranks alongside Fountains of Rome as one of Respighi’s best compositions.

The Laud is indeed a charming work. Scored for chorus, three soloists, and chamber ensemble (two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two percussionists, and piano four hands), this too is an annunciation: The cantata opens with an angel (Julie Wolf) announcing the child’s birth to a chorus of shepherds and instructing them to go see him. Once in the stable where the child was born, the shepherds offer their cloaks to the child and offer to warm him with their own bodies. Mary (Sharon Mabry) responds to their offer and meditates on her own role in this cosmic drama, before the chorus, as a host of angels, overflows with exultant praise.

Until this final splendid chorus, Respighi’s idiom is more lyrical and pensive than Bach’s, marked with archaic open-fifth harmonies, and more homophonic than contrapuntal. The vivid colors he’s famous for are evident, though rather restrained until the end. Most remarkably, more than a third of the 30-minute cantata is written for four-part male chorus, as the shepherds offer to help the child. That alone is worth the evening.

Remarkable also is Mabry’s decision to begin with Respighi and end with Bach, reversing the chronological order of events. To begin with the more lyrical laud, and to conclude with the more intense Bach, is dramatically right. And psychologically, it makes sense for Mary, after the shepherds have gone, to remember with awe-filled joy how it all began. What’s more, though the Respighi features the full Symphony Chorus, it is accompanied by only nine instrumentalists. The Bach, conversely, uses the smaller Chamber Chorus, but a 40-piece orchestra of strings, winds, and trumpets. And though the Bach has some quiet moments, it is permeated with vibrant, contrapuntal, forward-driving energy.

To conclude the evening, the 150 or so singers who have been offstage during the Bach return to the hall and intersperse themselves among the audience. As a fitting coda, they sing, together with the Chamber Chorus, the well known hymn “O Holy Night,” in an arrangement by Lloyd Wells especially commissioned for this performance. The evening could be the outstanding choral musical event of this solstitial season.

For me, that likelihood is filled with dark irony: The concert is scheduled for one evening only—a Wednesday. A choral event that ought to draw singers from church choirs all over the region is scheduled on the night when many of those choirs are rehearsing their own seasonal music. But attendance numbers, in any case, are less important than the fact that this will be heard at all in a local venue. And for those who’d like to see this performance but can’t make it on Dec. 13, the Bach part of the concert will be offered several days before at Austin Peay. It’ll be worth the 50-mile drive to make the 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, performance there—a small investment promising a large return.

For me, that likelihood is filled with dark irony: The concert is scheduled for one evening only—a Wednesday. A choral event that ought to draw singers from church choirs all over the region is scheduled on the night when many of those choirs are rehearsing their own seasonal music. But attendance numbers, in any case, are less important than the fact that this will be heard at all in a local venue. And for those who’d like to see this performance but can’t make it on Dec. 13, the Bach part of the concert will be offered several days before at Austin Peay. It’ll be worth the 50-mile drive to make the 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, performance there—a small investment promising a large return.

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