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Music Review

Pacific Chorale Turns Up Volume for 'Criolla'

November 18, 1998|SUSAN BLISS

If size and volume were synonymous with quality, the concert given by the Pacific Chorale would have topped the masterworks chart Sunday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Instead, the program just went over the top.

The agenda for the evening revolved around two weighty works for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra--Antonio Estevez's Cantata "Criolla" and William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast"--both of which require the vocal and instrumental groups to turn out in full strength. With some 240 participants, including six percussionists in the Pacific Symphony, there was plenty of power to mount a full assault.

The cantata, based on the poem "Florentino y el Diablo" (Florentine and the Devil) by Estevez's Venezuelan compatriot Alberto Arvelo Torrealba, recounts a plainsman's singing contest with the devil, in which each participant must improvise on the last line of the other's verses.

Estevez draws on native sounds--joropos rhythms, dancing maracas and programmatic imitations of the cowboy's horse trotting along. Those elements mix with intentionally uncomfortable instrumental combinations, punishing rhythms and flirtations with dissonance that smack greatly of--but add little to--Stravinsky and Orff.

Both chorus and orchestra get to sing loud and louder. The choir managed this task with controlled flair, managing not to shout, maintaining rhythmic precision and point. The instrumentalists drowned out anyone they could, largely ignored, as they were, by the chorale's artistic director, John Alexander. Singing the role of the devil, baritone Claudio Muskus fell prey to his accompanists, partly through their over-exuberance and partly through the setting, which places most of his range in the midst of the orchestra part. Tenor Idwer Alvarez, who--with Muskus--was flown in from Venezuela for this local premiere, carried easily over the orchestra, offering dramatic and appealing security in a part that he has claimed both in recording and in performance.

After this first onslaught, Walton's well-known oratorio seemed more overblown than momentous, a series of climaxes that quickly lost their potency. Luckily, Walton was craftsman enough to quiet his players in deference to the baritone solo, here sung by Jubilant Sykes with a sinuous and sensuous theatricality that shined through the bluster.

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