Year after year, I find that these big choral-orchestral extravaganzas are always the toughest festival concerts to get through, but mainly because of the incredible nostalgia I always feel. I used to perform in Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt’s concerts back in the ’90s, as a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Performing great music always beats writing about it.
Thursday evening’s event brought us two of Western music’s greatest choral-orchestral monuments, beginning with 20th-Century French master Francis Poulenc’s incongruously deep Gloria, as scored for solo soprano, chorus, and large orchestra. Poulenc — although a devout Catholic — never stopped writing in an outwardly flippant and saucy style, even when making spiritual points. Even here, he used a number of coarse, Parisian street-ditties as melodic material (drinking songs, bawdy ballads, etc.). But the music’s miracle is that he somehow made them holy.
The punchy, march-like opening “Gloria” movement, with its swaggering, brassy orchestral fanfares, set the mood. “Laudamus te,” a jaunty, joyous song of praise – continued the trend. In “Domine Deus, Rex Caelestis,” our sweet-toned soprano soloist, Kiera Duffy, wove magically in and out of the soft choral fabric even though she had enough power to be heard over heavier textures, too.
“Domini Fili Unigenite” took us briefly back to the opening ebullience, before the ethereal “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” delivered what I hear as the composer’s mystical vision of heaven. Duffy did her sweetest, most profound singing here, spiraling repeatedly up into the vocal stratosphere with effortless ease and tonal beauty. The work came to a close with “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,” with its brassy and manic beginning that seemed to be taking us to intermission in grand style. But Duffy re-emerged for some gentle exchanges with the chorus, ending the piece with a soft sigh.
The chorus — a sonorous fusion of Dr. Joe Miller’s famed Westminster Choir and Dr. Robert Taylor’s excellent CSO Chorus — performed splendidly. The Spoleto Festival Orchestra sounded great, too: their brass work was especially nifty. And I thought they all sounded even a tad better after halftime, in the evening’s magnum opus: W. A. Mozart’s imperishable Requiem in D Minor, a work that the composer left unfinished at his untimely death. We have mostly his student/assistant, F. X. Süssmayr, to thank for completing it. There’s no explaining its evergreen appeal.
Joining the main crew here were a team of excellent soloists: Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, mezzo Marjorie Elinor Dix, and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck were moonlighting from this festival’s opera production, Louise. Tenor Mark Thomsen has appeared in several past Spoleto opera productions.
I can’t take you through all of the many movements and sections here; suffice it to say that all were performed impeccably. As for highlights, the solemn opening introit led into the “Kyrie” movement — memorable for its magnificent fugue — which the choir executed very cleanly and clearly. The “Rex Tremendae” section’s softly sighing “salva me” prayer left me breathless.
I loved the way Flummerfelt drew magical contrasts as the men’s chugging, violent “Confutatis” lapsed into its heavenly “voca me” entreaty from the ladies. The keening “Lacrimosa” — in flowing 12/8 meter — is where Mozart enfolds us to his soul, gently rocking us as we weep; this rendition of it was utterly heartbreaking. The soloists shone in their two stand-alone quartets: “Recordare” and “Benedictus.”
Most of the remaining movements weren’t as impressive, as they were composed almost entirely by Süssmayr. But he had the good sense to recycle some of Mozart’s own material from the opening movements. The chief example is the late reprise of “Kyrie” section’s mighty fugue, keeping the master’s spirit intact to the end. But Flummerfelt and company made them sound as good as they can be.
I drove home exhausted, but exalted — with the best parts of both works echoing inside my skull. It was a foretaste of heaven, for sure.