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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Singing Out : The Moorpark Masterworks Chorale offers an evening of musical grandeur that seems to please everyone.

March 12, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spring is trying to push its way through the cold front, and voices are ringing out in Ventura County. Choral voices, that is. The month of March is unusually verdant with choral offerings.

On Saturday night at St. Paschal Baylon in Thousand Oaks, the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale pulled out all the stops with an inspiring concert conducted by Roger Wagner.

On March 21 and 22, the Ventura County Master Chorale will serve up a spring program that includes 20th-Century works by Kodaly, Britten and Ives.

Wrapped in an aura of a Significant Musical Event, Saturday's performance by Masterworks Chorale proved to be a bold illustration of the richness and timelessness of the choral tradition.

Leaping smoothly from the 16th Century to the 20th, Wagner balanced a set of Renaissance motets with a performance of the Requiem of French composer Maurice Durufle (1902-1986), replete with orchestra and the Amadeus Boys Choir, in addition to the 100-strong Masterworks Chorale.

At Saturday's concert, the sizable, reverberant space of St. Paschal's acoustically complemented the Moorpark group's overall grand sound. Then, of course, there was the aptness of the setting: religious music in a church. It helped allow for something approaching a religious experience, regardless of the respective creeds in the hall.

Wagner, after half a century of service as one of the leaders in the choral world, now lives in Camarillo and has conducted the Moorpark ensemble twice.

While a figure of global renown, Wagner's Southern Californian roots run deep. Born in France in 1914, he studied for the priesthood in Santa Barbara before devoting himself to music. He ran the Los Angeles Master Chorale for 23 years, and still teaches at UCLA and Pepperdine.

Hardly a poker-faced conductor, Wagner punctuated the proceedings with rambling, good-humored anecdotes, comments on the works and tales from a full life. Before the concert began, Wagner warned the capacity audience they would hear an evening of wonderful music-making.

"If it doesn't please you," he said, "it's your fault."

The first half of the concert celebrated the art of the motet, a musical form from the Renaissance. It included examples ranging from work by the established 16th-Century master, Palestrina, to the lovely "Salve Regina" by Juan de Lienas, only recently unearthed in a Mexico City church.

But the emotional apogee of the set came with the "Vere Languores," by Thomas Ludovicus Victoria. Notably impassioned and moving in its execution, the piece embodied deep reverence and an almost haunting beauty.

Conducting polyphonic music can be a two-fisted affair, and Wagner's highly articulated system of gestures evoked a sense of control. The chorale responded by being a model of ensemble cohesion and fine dynamic detailing.

Bridging the old and new aspects of the concert was a Bach fugue, played with gusto and precision by St. Paschal's resident organist, James Pingelli.

A colleague of Wagner's, Durufle is best known for his 1947 Requiem, which intriguingly--if not always successfully--melds Gregorian-like lines with harmonic language that nods to impressionism.

This ancient-modern merger translates well to the '90s ear in our age of generalized cultural pastiche. The kind of static, sustaining chords in the orchestra covers ground touched on by the minimalists.

But the whole of Durufle's piece isn't as impressive as its parts, or its conceptual agenda. Contrasting sharply with the restraint and unsentimental design of the motets, Durufle's score occasionally leads into too abrupt, bombastic crescendos, then basks in coloristic afterglow.

Despite its overheated moments, the Requiem is more calmly reassuring than it is foreboding or mournful. By the closing "In Paradisum," the shimmering harmonies suggest idyllic dreaminess--like glimpsing through a keyhole to sneak a peek at heaven.

Overall, the evening was marked by sharp technical focus, sensitively rendered textures and subtle displays of choral grandeur. True to Wagner's promise, it seemed to please everyone.

Works by Benjamin Britten and Zoltan Kodaly, the centerpieces of the upcoming Ventura County Master Chorale concert, date from the same era as Durufle's Requiem, but on the other side of World War II. Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb," circa 1943, and Kodaly's "Missa Brevis" of 1944 are religious works composed at a time of global conflict.

While composed in a fairly straightforward musical language, Britten's lively piece is based on the somewhat bizarre text of the 18th-Century poet Christopher Smart, discovered in 1939. Written while the poet was in a mental asylum, the piece gives thanks for all God's creatures, great and small--not excluding his cat and a certain mouse.

Kodaly is, after Bartok, the best known of 20th-Century Hungarian composers. If his work is more conservative and less concerned with innovation than his countryman, it is distinctive and often marked by Slavic inflections.

Also on the Master Chorale's program are Psalm 90 by Charles Ives, Psalm 150 by Anton Bruckner and three spirituals. Joining the vocal ranks is Santa Barbara-based organist Larry Blackburn. The concert is another sign of the adventurous spirit of the Master Chorale's director, Burns Taft.

Altogether, the current choral schedule in Ventura County pays bountiful tribute to the world's oldest instrument.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Ventura County Master Chorale at First Presbyterian Church, 850 Ivywood Drive in Oxnard at 8 p.m. March 21, and at Ascension Church, 1600 E. Hillcrest in Thousand Oaks, at 4 p.m. March 22.

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