Tuesday evening’s choral-orchestral concert – as usual – put more musicians on the stage than any other Spoleto event: four soloists, a combined choir of around 120 voices, plus a substantial orchestra. These annual extravaganzas are definitely the festival’s most nostalgic concerts for me, as I sang in the chorus for these events over an eight-year stretch back in the ’90s. I got to rub elbows with the Westminster Choir’s glorious singers, and learned more about the art of choral singing under Joseph Flummerfelt’s deft baton than from any other director.
The opening work – W.A. Mozart’s fairly compact “Coronation” Mass (No. 15, in C Major) is definitely the most brilliant and richly orchestrated of the dozen-plus mass-settings he wrote during his relatively unhappy years at the Salzburg court. Although scholars still disagree, the work’s nickname may have alluded to the crowning of an icon of the Virgin Mary in a famous nearby pilgrimage church. Mozart’s personal circumstances were rather unhappy at the time, as a recent job-hunting expedition had been fruitless, and his mother had passed away while he was trying his luck in Paris. But the same sojourn had taken him to the German city of Mannheim, then the home of Europe’s finest cutting-edge orchestra, which inspired this work’s vibrant orchestration.
Our assorted artists performed with matchless splendor, from beginning to end. The packed house thrilled to the sounds of four top-notch soloists, to include Jennifer Zetlan’s piercing and lovely soprano voice and mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick’s velvety-smooth instrument. The men’s voices belonged to two Spoleto veterans: Mark Thomsen’s ringing tenor graced the festival’s phenomenal production of Don Giovanni a few years back, and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck’s rich vocals helped make the festival’s recent production of Amistad a memorable one. Both were in fine fettle here.
The chorus was the usual blend of Joe Miller’s peerless 40-voice Westminster Choir and roughly 80 voices from the excellent Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, an ensemble that has shown steady improvement under Robert Taylor’s inspired guidance over the past decade-plus. The resulting mega-choir was a joy to the ear and soul alike, packing plenty of punchy excitement where called for plus sweetly sonorous work elsewhere, bringing out the work’s mostly bright and extroverted sense of spirituality. The medium-sized orchestra, drawn from among this year’s best-ever Spoleto Festival Orchestra players, was simply fabulous; I’ve never heard them sound better in these vaunted choral-orchestral concerts. I drifted through intermission on cloud nine.
Our various artists then returned, sans soloists, for one of Johannes Brahms’ most beloved choral works for larger forces: the Song of Destiny. Setting a rich poem by German master Friedrich Hölderlin, the piece is not a strictly sacred work, though it contains strong “heavenly” allusions, as it compares a luminous and joyful world of celestial spirits to the unhappy lot of earthly beings. Accordingly, the rich music takes us from a delicious sense of peaceful contentment to the grit and windy turmoil of earthly woes, with wretched mortals being helplessly tossed “like water flung from rock to rock, endlessly down into the unknown.” While there’s no mention of God, the piece definitely conveys a deeply spiritual sense in a way that fit perfectly into the creative muse of Brahms, a man who was not conventionally religious. Chorus and orchestra alike sounded wonderful; Flummerfelt squeezed every drop of ethereal bliss, sweet emotion and pounding tragedy from the sumptuous score.
Giuseppe Verdi wasn’t a particularly religious person, either. But in his later years, at the height of his fame, he abruptly stopped cranking out smash-hit operas. But he hardly remained idle, producing his glittering and powerful Requiem Mass, plus four shorter settings of sacred Latin texts that were eventually published together as his Four Sacred Pieces. Perhaps the most powerful and varied of these is his Te Deum, a text which Verdi claimed had never gotten a satisfactory musical setting (at least to his ears). While the work was considered very “modernist” for its day, Verdi took pains to tie it into timeless sacred tradition, even beginning the piece with a bit of ancient plainchant. And he must’ve been happy with his own attempt at the revered sacred poem, as he allegedly voiced his wish to be buried with the score. Indeed, this piece, along with its companion-piece, the Stabat Mater, turned out to be the final complete compositions that he produced.
Scored for large double choir and orchestra, the piece also offers a brief soprano solo, heard from within the choir near the end. Verdi is reported to have commented that he wanted the soloist (here uncredited) to sound like “the voice of humanity that is scared of hell,” and indeed, the entire work intermittently projects this feeling of dread, in a manner that recalls his stormy masterpiece, the Requiem. Our small army of musicians achieved an interpretation that was, by turns, sweetly serene and gloriously gutsy.
It’s hard to say, from year to year, which Spoleto event I look forward to most keenly. But time and again, no festival events leave me as thoroughly satisfied, elevated, and downright overjoyed as those coming from Dr. Flummerfelt’s magical musical ministry. Thanks again, Maestro.