Master Chorale meditates on last things with Fauré Requiem, contemporary works

By David Fleshler

Brett Karlin conducted the Master Chorale of South Florida Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

A focus on death may not be the sunniest approach to an opening-season concert. But the Master Chorale of South Florida produced an absorbing evening of music Friday night in Fort Lauderdale, anchored by a strong contemporary work and one of the choral repertory’s gentlest requiems.

The performance took place at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a dramatic venue with a 303-foot steeple towering over Federal Highway and a sanctuary dominated by the silvery pipes of the huge Ruffati organ, one of the largest in the southeastern United States.

The concert opened with a choral setting of Invictus, the famous Victorian poem of adversity overcome by William Ernest Henley. Composed by the contemporary American composer Joshua Rist, it’s a darkly dramatic work that begins in minor-key agitation and ends in quiet resolution. Under artistic director Brett Karlin, the chorus gave a vigorous performance, from the tense opening moments through a soaring climax.

The American composer Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed sets the final words of seven black men who had been killed by authorities, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, devoting a brief movement to each.

Musical works with a social motivation can be problematic, with virtue signaling tending to take precedence over artistic merit. But Thompson produced a compelling, dramatic work that let the music carry the load and avoided descending into easy political pieties.

While the composer explicitly eschewed an anti-police agenda, according to brief introductory remarks by Karlin, it was hard not to take one from program notes that were full of stories of trigger-happy cops. Still, the composition itself kept a tight focus on the horror and sadness of death suddenly and violently arriving on a neighborhood walk or trip to the store, using a variety of musical means from fugue to soprano solo to produce episodes of almost cinematic drama.

The section on Trayvon Martin, shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in suburban Orlando, used an agitated fugue full of dissonance to evoke the nightmare of that episode. The section on Amadou Diallo, shot by police in New York on the incorrect suspicion that he was a wanted rapist, was an affecting solo by the soprano Erica Williams. It used his last words on a phone call to his mother – “Mom, I’m going to college” – for a mournful evocation of blasted hopes.

Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings came next, performed without pause as a sort of coda to Thompson’s work. The Arcadian Ensemble, the orchestra that was excellent throughout the evening, took the spotlight, giving a polished performance that came off, because of the preceding Thompson work, as particularly somber.

The concert concluded with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, an intimate, spiritual work that emphasizes comfort and transcendence over the dramatics found in similar works by Verdi, Mozart or even Brahms.

With a roster of more than 130 singers, the chorus at times lacked the clarity and precision of smaller ensembles. But under Karlin’s tight direction, the singers sang with supple flexibility, producing glowing, soft-edged pianissimos, surging crescendos and stirring climaxes. In the final movement, an evocation of heaven so vivid that listeners could visualize puffy clouds and shafts of sunlight, female voices produced soaring, angelic tones.

The tenor Christopher W. Waite provided a sturdy solo in the Offertory, and the soprano Christina Hutcheson sang with pure tones in the Pie Jesu. Of the three soloists, the most impressive was the baritone Phil Denny in Libera me, the only real fire-and-brimstone part of the Requiem, who brought intensity and excitement to ascending melodic lines that tell of the impending end of the world.

The Master Chorale of South Florida will repeat the program 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Boca Raton.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Master Chorale meditates on last things with Fauré Requiem, contemporary works”

  1. Posted Oct 28, 2023 at 11:33 pm by Taiisha

    This was my first Master Chorale concert and I must say, it was a full experience! I was moved to tears with the pairing of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and Adagio for Strings. It was so beautiful.

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Sat Oct 28, 2023
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