Mozart and more in unique program from Cantate Chamber Singers

Mon Mar 02, 2020 at 12:52 pm
By Alex Baker
Victoria Gau conducted the Cantate Chamber Singers in Mozart’s Requiem Sunday in Bethesda.

Victoria Gau, now halfway through her first season as music director of the Cantate Chamber Singers, led the chorus in a unique program interspersing (mostly) 20th century choral selections among the movements of Mozart’s Requiem, Sunday night at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

As Gau noted in pre-concert remarks, the insertion of these works sought to complement and amplify various themes brought forth in the Mozart. While the associations were fairly general, the integration of these pieces within the Requiem added a nice sense of flow to the usual practice of programming a first half with smaller pieces to fill out the running time when the major work isn’t quite long enough.

Gau presided over a spirited reading of the Requiem, leaning towards vigorous tempi throughout. While the default here was a very robust sound, she maintained a keen sense of internal dynamics as well. The chorus kept pace admirably with these demands in a tight performance that demonstrated how compelling the Requiem’s choral music can be with a healthy sense of momentum.

Though passages like the “Lacrymosa” might have benefited from a bit more of a “dirge” quality, this was a winning approach overall. The closing “Cum Sanctis” fugue, repeating music from earlier in the work, was an especially rewarding finish, with clear diction and finely articulated passagework, particularly in the sopranos’ ringing ascending figures.

While the fine orchestra fielded for this concert was key to the full sonority created here, the forces wrestled with balance issues at the outset of the Requiem, with the orchestra often overpowering the group of just 25 voices. By the “Rex Tremendae,” adjustments seem to have been made, and the choir’s forte was appropriately gripping, though some competition remained in the heavier Requiem movements. 

Balance issues were particularly acute for the understaffed tenor section. Though they demonstrated a good sound when exposed, as in the “Confutatis,” tutti textures frequently felt light in the middle, particularly against a consistently solid foundation in the bass section.

The Requiem featured a strong quartet of soloists that easily filled the church with operatic sound. Stephen L. Bryant’s commanding baritone and Matthew Loyal Smith’s clarion tenor delivered a rousing start to the “Tuba Miram,” while the rich mezzo of Cara Schaefer and Deborah Sternberg’s cool, distinguished soprano contributed well in both solo sections and lovely ensembles in the “Recordare” and “Benedictus.”

The “interspersed” selections offered an opportunity to hear the chorus in different musical contexts from the Requiem.

John Tavener’s Song for Athene, drawing on Orthodox motifs, featured some beautifully blended piano singing across the group. A generous, unified sound did much to bring alive Andrew Earle Simpson’s evocative arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger,” paired with a soaring solo from Sternberg and an intriguing instrumental arrangement. 

The chorus also made a persuasive case for Victoria Bond’s melancholy “Your Voice is Gone,” which sets a poem about one of the young female workers killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, though here, as in a few other places early in the program, the soprano sound tended to spread and undershoot the pitch at the top of their range. Less successful was Moses Hogan’s a capella arrangement of “Abide With Me,” in which consistent tuning was an issue.

The opening movement of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem was a clear choice to complement the gentler portion of Mozart’s Requiem, but also felt unpolished. A number of the tricky entrances that pepper the score lacked a unified sound, particularly in the basses, though the middle section of the piece was much stronger, with the warm, attractive sound of the alto section notable here as in other moments throughout the evening.

Victoria Gau and the Cantate Chamber Singers close their season with “Wonder: Music and the Natural World” 5 p.m. May 10 at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

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