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Raised Voices, Unheard : Sheer Size of William Hall Master Chorale Gets in the Way of Brahms


COSTA MESA — At 154 voices, the William Hall Master Chorale may be too large for its own good.

Certainly it allows Hall, one of our most intelligent and sensitive conductors, to sculpt vast shapes of sound, at times visceral in impact, rich in depth and huge in volume.

But trade-offs could be heard Saturday in a Brahms program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

In "Ein deutsches Requiem" (A German Requiem), the text, though usually intelligible, rarely was interpreted with the fervor and detail Hall consistently evoked from the underpowered (relative to the singers) 54-member orchestra. Incisive choral entrances were impossible. More seriously, the wonderful Biblical texts didn't signify.

Fortunately, this was not true in the singing of the soloists, soprano Patricia Prunty and baritone Rodney Gilfry.

It was an oddball concert, opening with a lovely a cappella chorus, "In stiller Nacht" (In Still of Night), continuing nontraditionally with a string quartet, then moving to the devastating "Vier ernste Gesange," (Four Serious Songs), with Gilfry sensitively accompanied by pianist Grant Gershon.

The baritone has been busy this week, twice singing the river god Riolobo in Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas" for the Los Angeles Opera. His voice showed some wear--unsteadiness, dryness and gravel--early on, but it passed. He concentrated more on spinning out line than interpreting text.

The clap-happy audience applauded not only after every song (indeed, after every movement of every work on the program), but even before the final chords.

There are good reasons why chamber music shouldn't be played in a 3,000-seat house like Segerstrom Hall, as the Angeles String Quartet, to its misfortune, demonstrated.

Most of the intensity and detail that violinists Margaret Batjer and Steven Miller, violist Brian Dembow and cellist Stephen Erdody devoted to Brahms' Second Quartet virtually evaporated, leaving an often uncharacterized and diffused residue.

To their credit, the players didn't try to push volume at the expense of tone, but this was hardly an opportunity to hear them at their best.

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