On Friday afternoon, the packed Cathedral of St. John the Baptist resounded to the stirring, and then mesmerizing strains of two highly varied Te Deum settings. Filling the front of the church to overflowing (literally) was a crowd of assorted musicians consisting of the Westminster Choir (WC), the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (CSOC) and members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO). In terms of sheer numbers of performers, this was Spoleto 2014’s biggest event, and probably the richest in terms of overall sound. Making his festival debut conducting the festival’s big annual choral orchestral concert was our new Director of Choral Activities, Dr. Joe Miller.
Quoting from my earlier preview article, “Te Deum, the program’s title, is an ancient sacred text that has been set to music by countless composers over the centuries, and still remains in active use as part of the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies. According to ancient Christian lore, the core text was originally attributed to St. Augustine, as a spontaneous outpouring of praise to God on the occasion of his baptism by St. Ambrose late in the fourth century A. D. Additional sections have been added to it through the ages.”
Of all the great Baroque-era composers, nobody could beat English master George Frideric Handel when it came to music of grand and festive celebration. His Dettingen Te Deum was commissioned in 1743, to commemorate the victory of English forces over their French enemy in a major battle. The magnificent result — scored for soloists, large chorus, orchestra, and organ — is one of Handel’s grandest works and an often martial-toned marvel of celebratory pomp and majesty. The text was rendered in its English version.
Our massed musical forces delivered a sonically spectacular performance that made the cathedral’s high, arched ceiling ring. I wonder if any other of this year’s Spoleto events could’ve beat this one for sheer grandeur or sonic volume. Orchestra and chorus alike were simply magnificent, combining to produce gorgeous gobs of lusty and thrilling sound. The soloists were mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser, tenor Thomas Michael Allen, and baritone Museop Kim, and they all sang splendidly, balancing nicely in the ensemble passages. It was a shame that Brookhyser’s smooth and assured mezzo voice tended to get swallowed up every now and then by the church’s cavernous acoustic.
While on the subject of acoustics, the cathedral’s characteristic sound is distinctly reverberant, with a lingering echo that tends to obscure musical details, especially in a loud and busy work like this one. As a result, some of the piece’s ornate melismas sounded a bit muffled and unclear, even though the chorus executed them crisply and with precision. But there were acoustical benefits too, namely a certain smoothing out of potentially shrill, higher-end sonorities, like those from the choral sopranos or upper-end brasses. Speaking of those, the SFO’s trio of blazing trumpets shivered our collective timbers over and over.
But the church’s acoustics were much kinder to the work that followed. After a stretch break as the musicians rearranged themselves, both a smaller orchestra (mostly strings, “prepared” piano, and what looked like a synthesizer) and a reduced chorus presented a work that couldn’t possibly have been more different from the Handel. Estonian master Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum sets essentially the same text, but this time in Latin. Pärt has become something of a cult figure in recent decades, as his sacred music achieves an incredibly intense spiritual aura using the simplest of structural means.
The spare and crystal-clear sonic textures of Pärt’s music are the result of his entirely new approach to harmonic structure that he calls his “tintinnabuli” style. It’s best described as a foundation of randomly sequenced notes of any key’s basic triad accompanying a harmonically related melody that unfolds stepwise over it. The net result — faintly bell-like — is profoundly moving and almost hypnotic in effect. The sensitive listener almost invariably gets caught up in a kind of spiritual trance. As Pärt himself put it, “I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”
Up front, to the sides and rear of the small string orchestra, were three separate choirs: small male and female ensembles to stage left and right and a larger mixed choir behind the instruments. Varied antiphonal exchanges took place throughout the piece, with the women singing here and the men singing there, and the main mixed choir serving as a sort of foundational musical fulcrum between them.
The choral forces looked about a third smaller than in the first piece, and the singing was of an entirely different tonal nature. Whereas the Handel was sung in full-throated glory, the Pärt was executed in lighter and mostly clearer “straight tones,” with hardly a hint of vibrato to them. This made for much purer and more transparent choral texture overall. Rhythmic underpinnings were gentler and much less distinct, giving the music an almost plainchant-like flow that smacked faintly of ancient Orthodox style. This was no surprise given Estonia’s proximity to Russia. The orchestral sound, with its icy, crystalline sonorities, matched the choral sound perfectly.
Miller held his still-sprawling forces together beautifully, achieving a stunning sense of musical symmetry and balance between his small orchestra and the three choirs. His intangible gift for drawing a sense of spiritual mystery and deep sacred sentiment from every last one of his musicians was ever apparent.
Before the concert began, I had told the lady seated next to me (who professed not to understand Pärt’s music) to give up on trying to analyze it, to sit back with a blank mind and an open soul, and simply let it wash over her and see whether or not marvelous Arvo’s magic succeeded in casting its spell on her. After the piece died away into utter stillness, the entire audience sat in total silence for at least a ten-second eternity before the initial patters of applause swelled into a veritable tsunami of appreciative clamor. And my once-skeptical neighbor lady told me something like, “Now that’s a spell I wouldn’t mind going through again.”
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