Tuesday’s big choral-orchestral extravaganza at the Gaillard was one to remember, but then, most of them are. Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt is one of world’s great choral conductors, and I have yet to hear a bad show from him. (Full disclosure: Before I began reviewing these affairs, I sang in eight of them as a member of the Charleston Symphony Chorus.)
Robert Taylor’s fine (and very fortunate) local symphonic choir is up to good doctor’s standards. When you add 40 magnificent voices from the Westminster Choir, they’re hard to beat.
The first half held a pair of shorter Germanic classics for choir and orchestra, beginning with Josef Haydn’s compact, yet musically complete setting of the ancient “Te Deum” text that has inspired many great composers to give of their best. It’s three contrasting movements gave the text (an exuberant hymn of praise) everything it needed: an emphatic sense of worship, lyric beauty, and an aura of celestial glory. The final movement’s fugue added dramatic punch. The mid-sized choir sounded great: crisp and sonorous, with a quality of diction that allowed me to follow most of the Latin text. The juicy-sounding Spoleto Festival Orchestra (bigger than Haydn would’ve used) tended to overwhelm the singers at first, but Dr. F moved quickly to restore proper balance.
After a stage makeover, a much bigger choir and orchestra assembled for a serene go at Johannes Brahms’ rich, but subdued “Nänie,” the evening’s only secular work. It’s a potent bit of mournful magic, setting Friedrich Schiller’s poetic lament for Adonis (the youthful hottie of ancient legend). But it shares a common theme with most sacred music, namely an awareness of human mortality: “Even beauty must die.” The chorus sounded very “Brahmsian” — quite different than in either the preceding Haydn or following Beethoven. And therein lies one aspect of Flummerfelt’s wizardry. Brahms cultivated a uniquely rich, but sweet choral sound, and this legendary choirmaster knows exactly how to tweak a choir’s sonorities to get what he wants. He also got what he wanted — and more — out of his smooth-sounding orchestra.
The main fare came after halftime, with Ludwig van Beethoven’s sturdy and ingenious Mass in C Major, the earlier of his two settings of the standard Latin mass (the other being his metaphysical late wonder, the Missa Solemnis). As with the classic “Te Deum” and “Requiem” texts, the mass has drawn greatness from many of the past millennium’s top composers — hardly the least of whom is the illustrious Ludwig. By the time he got to this one, he had gotten used to shaking up the reigning musical establishment, so he proceeded to flout existing sacred rules with things like stark unison singing in places, unconventional orchestral support, and foregoing real arias for his soloists — making them instead more a part of the choral and orchestral fabrics. It’s a flowing, supremely cohesive work, full of drama, emotional intensity and lyrical beauty. And it’s over before you know it.
The chorus shone — offering collective passion and precision on top of radiant tone and beautifully nuanced dynamics. I caught only a few fleeting instances of ragged part-singing. The soloists did beautifully, too. Soprano Jennifer Check was in her usual glorious voice (she’s a cherished Spoleto regular), and mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy brought both bite and tenderness to her part. Both ladies were from the festival’s production of La Cenerentola. And the gents came courtesy of Amistad, the other big opera. Tenor Raul Melo’s clarion tone carried nicely, and bass Stephen Morscheck provided a rock-solid foundation. As the composer intended, they were foremost a vocal quartet. Sure, each one had ample chance to be heard, but no egos emerged to mar their sweet ensemble work. The orchestra was simply splendid.
It was an exalted evening and yet another Spoleto triumph for Flummerfelt and company.