Master Chorale goes for Baroque with mixed results

By Dennis D. Rooney

Brett Karlin conducted the Master Chorale of South Florida in Haydn's "The Creation" Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Brett Karlin conducted the Master Chorale of South Florida in an all-Baroque program Sunday in Boca Raton.  

Three choral masterpieces from the late Baroque opened the Master Chorale of Florida’s 17th season in a performance dubbed “Baroque Pops,” a title only a marketer could love. 

Brett Karlin, in his seventh season as Master Chorale artistic director, conducted the 130-voice choir and the Arcadian Instrumental Ensemble in two of the pieces performed Sunday in the Roberts Auditorium at Saint Andrews School in Boca Raton: Vivaldi’s Gloria and J. S. Bach’s Magnificat. The opener, Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, put associate conductor Steven Hirner in front of the same forces. 

All three works were composed less than ten years apart, and exemplify the liturgical and ceremonial choral music of the era. Zadok the Priest (with a text based on the biblical account of the anointing of Solomon by Zadok and Nathan the prophet) is one of four anthems Handel composed for the coronation of George II in 1727. 

Written to be performed in the reverberant space of Westminster Abbey, this celebratory, extroverted work has been heard there at the coronation of every succeeding British monarch. In the unresonant space of Roberts Auditorium, the effect was more delicate and unfortunately miniaturized. The English words were also only occasionally intelligible

In fact, room acoustics militated against all three works performed, depriving the music of the sensuous appeal of massed voices despite demonstrably good preparation by the ensemble. 

Probably written in 1715, Vivaldi’s Gloria was first performed by the singers and players of Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, all of whom were female, which certainly would have produced a markedly different sound than the mixed choir we hear today. In his setting of a part of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass, Vivaldi utilizes operatic aria style, dance rhythms and counterpoint to produce a jubilant atmosphere in which celebration dominates, ensuring its popularity, especially at Christmastide.

Karlin’s orchestra employed some aspects of historically informed performance (HIP), most audible in the senza vibrato string playing, which to many modern ears sounds weak in tone and lacking in color — the cello solo in “et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” was a prime example. Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, and Sarah Coit, mezzo-soprano, sang their respective solos with generally good tone but neither possessed a real trill.

Panthaki and Coit were joined onstage by tenor James Reese and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba in Bach’s Magnificat, a twelve-part setting of a biblical canticle associated with liturgical feast days. A first version of the work dates from 1723 but Bach revised it extensively. In addition to the five-part chorus, and vocal and instrumental solos, Bach specified an unusually large orchestra to display a wide palette of harmonic techniques and a deep sensitivity to the texts. On Sunday the ensemble used a portative organ for the continuo in both the Bach and the Vivaldi.

Ollarsaba, with excellent Latin diction and mellifluous tone, was the strongest of the soloists. Reese, though clearly experienced and a good musician, had a reedy quality that defeated any chance of lyricism. Coit sometimes pushed her tone so as to sing sharp (as did Reese, but without the pushing). Choppy phrasing was another common fault, and the soloists traipsing from their seats at stage right to center stage and back again was a needless distraction for both singers and audience.

Despite ample evidence of careful musical and technical preparation, the Master Chorale simply could not be heard to advantage in the venue. They will perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah next May in auditoriums at Nova Southeastern and Lynn universities, where the acoustic had better be more believable.

The Master Chorale returns with “Holiday Soirée” Dec. 14 at the Tower Club in Fort Lauderdale.

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Mon Nov 18, 2019
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