Master Chorale closes season with American music

By Lawrence A. Johnson


Joshua Habermann assumed the post of Master Chorale of South Florida artistic director last summer, and it has been intriguing to see his influence on the self-governing ensemble, which is closing its season this weekend with an all-American program.

  Progress was palpable at Friday night’s opening performance at First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach. There is a richer corporate sound and the massed tone is much more evenly distributed from top to bottom with no holes in the choral fabric. In two challenging works, the singers performed with sensitivity, refined vocalism and dynamic subtlety.

  Still, in Habermann’s first season, there remains room for improvement. Words were too often indistinct and consonants a sometime thing, particularly in the opening sections of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna—which couldn’t entirely be blamed on the noisy air-conditioning and problematic acoustic.  Also, possibly because the program drew a smaller crowd than usual, there was a lack of dynamic tension and live frisson in the performances, which at times had the relaxed feel of a rehearsal rather than the electricity of a live concert.

  O Magnum Mysterium is likely the most performed choral work of any living composer, but the California-based Lauridsen has written a host of other worthy music, so kudos to Habermann for giving us something different with Lux Aeterna.

  Written in 1997, the work is expansive in five connected sections, and characteristic in its spiritual quality and sophisticated writing (the inverted canon on fiat misericordia).  Other Lauridsen works, including O Magnum Mysterium, surface from time to time here, but Lux Aeterna is a fine piece in its own right, cast in Lauridsen’s lyrical consolatory style.

   Habermann led a spacious reading, with the organ and harp judiciously balanced against the Chorale’s vast body of singers. Again the Latin text was too often indecipherable, and while the long lines of the central motet O Nata Lux were moulded attentively by Habermann there was sometimes a want of expressive detailing.

  The joyous Veni, Sancte Spiritus was aptly fervent, however, and the concluding Agnus Dei-Lux Aeterna beautifully done, the sopranos set soaring on sempiternam,  and the hushed Alleluia coda glowing and evenly sustained.

  Few 20th century figures present a more personal conflict between the sacred and profane than Leonard Bernstein in his music and his life.  That dichotomy is evident in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which, even with its passing shadows, remains one of the composer’s sunniest and most open-hearted works.

  Habermann led the Chorale in an admirable performance, though the Hebrew text wasn’t always clear and the unhinged joy of the opening movement felt a bit too reined in.  In the central setting of Psalm 23—one of Bernstein’s most indelible inspirations— treble soloist Alejandro Pichardo offered the right touch of guileless innocence, if not the most expressive vocalism, while the men’s chorus provided the  contrasting vehement anger.  

  The dissonant opening of the finale offered a showy opportunity for the church’s magnificent  3,800-pipe organ, well played by Christopher Harrell. The text’s gratitude with its characteristic Lenny bear-hug embrace would have benefited from more emotional intensity, for the most part Habermann led the Chorale’s singers in a responsive, well-shaped rendering.

 The Florida Singing Sons Boychoir took the stage for the evening’s centerpiece of selections from Copland’s All American Songs and A Simple Song from Bernstein’s Mass.  The youngsters were clearly well drilled by director Craig Denison and performed with pure tone and fine clarity, particularly in the opener, The Little Horses.  What was lacking was a greater involvement with the songs’ varied expression, with the lively Ching-a Ring-Chaw too straight-faced and inhibited.

  An encore of Bernstein’s Make our Garden Grow for both the adult and children choruses made a worthy encore and apt closer to the Master Chorale’s season.  

 The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Congregational Church of Boca Raton/United Church of Christ and 4 p.m. Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Miami.; 954-418-6232.

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Sat Apr 25, 2009
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