Sunday, October 26, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Berlioz Te Deum

Many of us music lovers in Kansas City reacted quite positively to the announcement this past spring that the eminent choral master Charles Bruffy would be assuming the role as Director of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus.

The chorus just never measured up to its potential; sloppy entrances, mediocre diction, frequent pitch issues.... all the tiger traps of the world of choral performance on full display. With the orchestra reaching new heights, the chorus was capable of dragging it down. Thus it went with the bland Duruflè Requiem, a chorally sloppy Mozart Requiem and the vocally nightmarish Verdi Requiem of last year, a great orchestral performance ruined by the bland soloists and the confused choir.

Bruffy is, of course, well known nationally and internationally for his work with the Kansas City Chorale, Phoenix Bach Choir and his recordings which have won many awards including a Grammy. If any one could light a fire under the talented but always under-rehearsed sounding Chorus, it would be Bruffy.

I would love to say he worked miracles at last night's concert with the Symphony in the featured work, Berlioz's magnificent and demanding Te Deum. He got close, but work is still to be done. Music Director Michael Stern led the combined forces in the performances.

Immediately I noted the new confidence in the voices. Entrances were clearer and on pitch, they projected better than normal (the theatre's barely adequate acoustics also contribute to the ability to project)and they just seemed to be more comfortable in their art. That in and of itself is a great start.

Berlioz's revolution-inspired and militaristic Te Deum is one of the glories of the choral/orchestral repertoire. Grand, bombastic, contrapuntal, colorful and occasionally lyrical, the work demands a grand choir, orchestra and organ. Unfortunately, the Lyric Theatre has no organ so a well performed but barely adequate electronic organ had to suffice. A few dozen more singers and more strings could have made a better visceral impact. Purists and the highly pretentious would dismiss it as too small scaled. Pooh on them...overall, ignoring the limitations noted, this was a grand and well done performance of this not often heard piece. Tenor Phillipe Castagner's brief solo was well turned and a welcome lyrical interlude.

The evening's theme of spirituality and heavenly praise began with the ethereal Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. A nicely arched and nuanced performance, marred a bit by some intonation deficit in the uppermost string registers. Stern progressed from that piece attacca into Alan J Kernis' "Musica celestis" for strings alone. The two pieces did fit together well in key, mood and color. At least an agitated and well performed center section kept the piece from totally descending into another bland "pretty piece", all lovely sound and no form or substance.

One of the surprises of the evening was the charming, yet dramatic and energetic performance of the Symphony No. 84, sometimes known as the "In Nomine Domini". Stern and the Symphony are turning into a fine Haydn orchestra, bringing out the wit, personality and symphonic gravitas of these works. Haydn symphonies sound deceptively simple, yet that simplicity is achieved only through sound rhythm, snappy tempi and attention to myriad of detail. I hope to hear much more Haydn from them in the future.

1 comment:

kaneohe1972 said...

Great review, Don. Very insightful on many counts. Glad you enjoyed the concert!