What is it? How about choral Nirvana? A very generous evening of sublime choral-orchestral masterpieces from three of our most revered composers — brought to us by one of our very greatest musicians. These performances are always packed — so book early if you want a seat anywhere south of the Gaillard’s nosebleed section.
Why see it? The mix is irresistible, beginning with two of the German sacred tradition’s most exalted Classical-era plums: Beethoven’s sturdy and inspiring Mass in C is the main fare, with the compact glory of Josef Haydn’s Te Deum adding variety. Filling things out is Brahms’ seldom-heard Nänie, a secular work. In charge is revered choral guru Joseph Flummerfelt, leading Westminster Choir’s 40 glorious voices sprinkled amid Robert Taylor’s accomplished Charleston Symphony Chorus. Add some soloists and instrumental support from the fabulous young musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, and you’ve got everything you need to deliver the world-class goods.
Who should go? Here’s your chance to savor the very sweetest cream of the choral-orchestral art.
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $10-$65 • 1 hour 30 min. • June 3 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • (843) 579-3100
A Trio of German Gems: Choral glory on parade, a la Flummerfelt
Joseph Flummerfelt has been Spoleto USA’s director of choral activities for more than 30 years now. Along with his trusty Westminster Choir — which he directed until 2006 — he has transformed Chucktown into a true choral mecca during the festival. To boot, he and his peerless singers have generated a heavy hunger for this kind of music, giving rise to a top-notch local choral establishment.
Upon his retirement from Westminster Choir College — the Juilliard of the choral world — he entrusted the direction of his super-choir to Joe Miller, who now conducts their pair of smaller-scale festival concerts. But Flum — as he was affectionately nicknamed by his students — still runs Spoleto’s annual choral-orchestral gigs which have spoiled us rotten over the years. These events routinely pack more performers up front than any other festival happening: a hefty orchestra, plus a meaty chorus of about 120 voices (the Westminster Choir plus Robert Taylor’s Charleston Symphony Chorus). And the other side of the stage is always packed, too (book early).
As a former member of the CSOC, I got the chance to sing Ludwig van Beethoven’s stirring Mass in C — also this year’s magnum opus — when it got its last Spoleto performance back in 1998. While it can’t compare to the rarefied metaphysical glory of Beethoven’s later Missa Solemnis, its tremendous originality, appeal, and spiritual intensity are hard to beat. Even though Prince Esterházy — the nobleman who commissioned it — didn’t like it, the piece soon found favor in other quarters and has been performed steadily ever since.
In the piece, Beethoven, the musical rebel, tricked out the usual Latin Mass text with radical new musical trappings — like leading off with unaccompanied bass voices in the opening “Kyrie.” In the “Sanctus,” the singers are (gasp!) backed by timpani alone. Heavier stretches of text get extra oomph from the choir’s stark unison and octave passages. Also, the work’s main movements are broken into smaller sections, setting up the use of varied rhythmic patterns, keys, and cunning major-minor shifts.
Josef Haydn gets due tribute here with his compact, yet spiritually powerful Te Deum — setting an ancient hymn of praise that composers have been latching onto for centuries. Written around the same time as his six wondrous final mass settings, this three-movement number packs a lot into eight minutes: it’s one of Papa Haydn’s finest shorter choral works with orchestra.
Nänie, one of Johannes Brahms’ seldom-heard short choral miniatures, rounds out the program. It’s the evening’s only secular work, setting a text by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. It’s a lush but mournful threnody for Adonis, the gorgeous heartthrob of classical antiquity. Its opening line, “Even beauty must die,” sets the music’s sense of sad, but serene resignation.
My former colleagues from the CSO Chorus tell me that everything’s shaping up well — and we can expect the usual superb work from the festival orchestra. The soloists for the Beethoven section — all moonlighters from our two big opera productions — are very promising, too. Soprano Jennifer Check (a frequent Spoleto headliner) and mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy have lead roles in La Cenerentola; tenor Raul Melo and baritone Steven Morscheck star in Amistad.
This trio of composers represents an important line of succession among German composers: Haydn, who invented the symphony as we know it, was Beethoven’s most important teacher, and Brahms, who inherited Beethoven’s mantle as Teutonic classicism’s main torchbearer. And their winning ways with the choral medium will be ours to savor on one single, shining night.
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