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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR | Music Review

Chorale's Oldies-but- Goodies

Choirmaster William Hall leads the group through a program that spans highlights from the last 1,000 years of music history.

March 28, 2000|LAURENCE VITTES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The William Hall Master Chorale, 111 members strong, presented an ambitious "Voices of the Millennium" program Sunday afternoon for its first concert of the year at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.

"It's the most difficult program I have chosen in 45 years," said choirmaster Hall. "Who do you leave out?"

But with help from organist Ladd Thomas, soprano Margaret Dehning, tenor Robert MacNeil and the Southern California Children's Chorus, Hall and the Chorale proceeded to put on a dazzling display of music's power to move the spirit these last thousand years.

The program began appropriately with the innocent voices of the children and the wonderfully reedy sounds of the church's Cassavant organ. It moved quickly from the 10th century to the Renaissance when, with boy soprano Nicholas Grishkoff singing the opening bars with ecclesiastical ecstasy, Victoria's "Nobis Datus" swept in with a more modern, fuller-bodied choral sound.

The Baroque period of the program opened with the weeping virgins chorus from Carissimi's "Jephte," the chorale's intonation becoming more secure as it began to pour emotion into the music, filling the building with sound. The familiar "Sleepers Awake" section of Bach's Cantata N. 140, which followed, combined the chorale and the Children's Chorus to enchanting effect, and Hall announced that the chorale would be performing Bach's great B Minor Mass twice in the fall (Oct. 25 and 27).

The first half concluded with music by Pergolesi, Handel (from "Messiah," of course), Mozart ('Ave Verum Corpus," sweet and innocent as if it had just stepped out of the pages of "The Magic Flute"), Schubert and the young Beethoven. The latter was the "Hallelujah" section from a now-obscure oratorio called "Mount of Olives," highlighted by the strong influence of Haydn and even Handel, with the organ, huffing and puffing to keep up with the fast-moving chorale, sounding at times like a circus calliope.

The second half was more congenial to the chorale's large-scale sound and style, beginning with an excerpt from Mendelssohn's "Elijah" (depressingly Victorian), Brahms, Bruckner (one of his gorgeous motets) and Tchaikovsky for the Romantics. It then proceeded on to the 20th century with Ives, Rachmaninoff and Edwin Fissinger (his harmonically ambiguous but thrilling "In Paradisum").

The afternoon's most unexpected delight came toward the end when a charismatic Lori Loftus conducted the Children's Chorus in Rupert Lang's "Ubi Caritas," a disturbing and challenging three-minute call for world peace.

*

Near the end of the concert, the loud opening chords and Dehning's angelic singing in an excerpt from Poulenc's "Gloria," "Qui Sedes Ad Dexteram Patris," made the audience sit up in their seats. Then, Hall sent them home with a moving performance of Samuel Barber's own setting for chorus of his famous "Adagio for Strings"; the vocal version is titled "Agnus Dei" (1967).

Hall was a congenial, occasionally jolly, and always knowledgeable host. He talked about how Gregorian chant has influenced sacred music throughout the millennium. He led the audience on a travelogue of Paris, St. Petersburg and Rome. With a twinkle in his eye, he discussed the polytonal habits of Charles Ives as if they were the musical equivalent of cross-dressing.

Meanwhile, organist Thomas, his back to Hall but his rear-view mirror on the organ console enabling him to follow every beat, contributed solidly through the program's bewildering changes of styles and sounds.

And there was always the chorale, splendid in its diction and full-voiced in its tone production and enthusiasm. It was a little unwieldy, perhaps, in the music of the earlier, more distant centuries, and not too inclined to risk too low a volume. But as the music came nearer to the more familiar devotional modes of the 19th and 20th centuries, the chorale relaxed and sang more convincingly.

It was a long but not an exhausting concert, and Hall's accompanying historical narrative along the way added considerable value to the musical entertainment. Answering his own question, it happened that Hall left out music by women and other non-European mainstream composers. But Hall promised a similar "millennium" concert next season, and that could give him the opportunity to redress the imbalance.

The chorale's final concert for this season will be June 17, when Carol Burnett and Frederica von Stade help "Broadway Meets the Met" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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