Master Chorale marks a decade with four conductors leading a mixed program

By David Fleshler

The Master Chorale of South Florida threw itself a 10th birthday party Friday in Pompano Beach, inviting all of its previous artistic directors back to conduct a work or two.

The choir has a lot to celebrate. Since its founding in 2003 after the demise of the Florida Philharmonic, for which its predecessor had been the in-house choral ensemble, the chorale has established itself as one of South Florida’s major classical organizations, performing significant works of the repertoire and appearing in two seasons with the Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The celebration comes at a time of transition for the chorale, since the announcement of the resignation of artistic director Karen Kennedy after just one season, citing a busy travel schedule that left her insufficient time for rehearsals. The search for a replacement is entering its final stages, with four finalists scheduled to interview with the board and audition with the chorus this month and next, said Nancy Gates-Lee, spokeswoman for the chorale. The announcement of the new artistic director is expected in late May or early June.

The results of putting on a performance under four different conductors were mixed, with the chorale producing a rich, well-balanced sound and singing with engagement and enthusiasm, but with some blurriness of execution, particularly in more complex works. The performance at First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach was accompanied by Symphony of the Americas. The program will be repeated Saturday and Sunday in Boca Raton and Coral Gables.

They opened with Mass of the Children, a sunny, easy-listening work by the contemporary British composer John Rutter that uses a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary, with touches of the Baroque. Joshua Habermann, the chorale’s director from 2008 to 2011, flew in from Dallas to conduct the performance, for which the chorale was augmented by The Girl Choir of South Florida.

The opening was a little vague, with uncertain intonation, possibly due to the sheer mass of the choral forces on stage. This may also have accounted for the foggy diction in the English language passages, such as the words from William Blake’s poem The Lamb. But the singers displayed great lightness and agility in the up-tempo Gloria. And they gave a stirring performance of the Sanctus and Benedictus, whose opening was reminiscent of Bach’s gentler moments, singing in soft, rounded, church-bell clear tones. Appearing as soloists were the soprano Esther Jane Hardenbergh and bass-baritone Kevin Short, whose best performance came in the pensive, tense Agnus Dei.

After intermission, the singers were allowed to rest their vocal cords for a few more minutes as the orchestra gave a boisterous account of excerpts from Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. Next Karen Kennedy, the chorale’s most recent director, stepped up to the podium to lead the chorale in a surging, vigorous performances of sections from Vaughan Williams’ cantata In Windsor Forest.

Since Kennedy’s departure, the chorale has been led by interim conductor Alec Schumacker, a doctoral candidate in music at the University of Miami. He conducted his own work, “Sanctus: My Cathedral,” an excerpt from his Mass on American Poems. Opening with the singers hissing to make a sound like the wind, this was a meditative, slowly-building work whose most effective moment came when the orchestra abruptly stopped left the chorale to sing on this own. It closed with more hissing.

Jo-Michael Scheibe, the chorale’s first artistic director, who deserves much of the credit for its success, flew in from Los Angeles to lead the ensemble in sections of Mozart’s Requiem, in the version completed by the American pianist and musicologist Robert Levin. Although the opening Domine Jesu suffered from a lack of precision in its polyphony, the Hostias was powerful and energetic, with particular strength in the lower voices. The concluding movement was an impressive display of fiery polyphony, with the different voices of the choir singing with vigor and bite as the polyphonic lines cascaded upon each other.

The concert ended with Habermann leading the chorale in a lyrical, sweet-toned performance of Schumacker¬†arrangement of the famous Aloha ‘Oe melody by Lili’uokulani, the last queen of Hawaii.

The Master Chorale of South Florida will repeat the program Saturday at 8 p.m. at Pine Crest School in Boca Raton and Sunday at 4 p.m. at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables.

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Sat Apr 20, 2013
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