Vital Tension 

Symphony’s Chorus assembles for dramatic, emotionally complex sacred work

Symphony’s Chorus assembles for dramatic, emotionally complex sacred work

Nashville Symphony Chorus feat. soloists Kenneth Lee and Emily Bullock

8 p.m. Apr. 27-28 in TPAC’s Jackson Hall

Call 255-9600 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for ticket information

Just about a year ago, the Nashville Symphony Chorus delivered a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana that drew strong praise from music critic Barbara Jepson in The Wall Street Journal. Now this weekend, the Symphony Chorus is poised to perform Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem.

These two program choices are analogous, for a variety of reasons. Both composers flourished in the 20th century: Orff was born in 1895, Duruflé in 1902. Each work is its composer’s acknowledged masterpiece, and neither composer is at all well known for other works. Carmina Burana (1936), made out of medieval Christian materials, metabolizes the parochial into the universal; the same is true of Duruflé’s Requiem (1947).

Duruflé’s Latin texts come right out of the medieval Roman Catholic mass for the dead; his musical materials derive from the modes of Gregorian chant that filled European cloisters and churches for hundreds of years. His vibrantly fresh transfiguration of these materials is still appropriate for a Catholic or Anglican service. But at the same time, in the composer’s own words: “This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings detached from worldly anxiety. It reflects...the anguish of man facing his last ending.” The consensus of critics holds that this music speaks powerfully to communicants and non-communicants alike.

Perhaps that’s because the music is essentially dramatic—objectifying the sometimes frantic union of ideas and emotions. Scored for orchestra, chorus, and two soloists (a mezzo-soprano and a baritone), the music gives first place to the chorus—a human community facing the enigma of human dissolution. Except in a couple places, the orchestra is the supporter of the human voices, wordless emotion undergirding the images that speech may evoke. Two or three times, this emotion washes over verbal articulation, when anguish threatens to drown self-control. And though the nine-section design of the music, tightly controlled by the architecture of the mass, is as solid as Notre Dame, the music’s emotional texture is as varied as the sculptures and stained-glass windows built into the cathedral. The chorus, delicately supported by the orchestra, is given the first word and the last word—“requiem.” It means “rest.”

The solo voices emerge only three times. The baritone sings twice, both times rising out of and sinking back into the chorus. Only the mezzo-soprano has a section all to herself, the fifth, right in the middle of the composition. In a haunting and haunted voice, she prays intensely, in increasing agitation, over and over the same phrase: “Merciful Lord Jesus, give them rest.” At last, calming down little by little, she concludes her prayer with the phrase “forever, rest forever, forever.” Throughout this agitated plea, the solo voice sings a duet with a solo cello, an undercurrent of wordless emotion. Here, as throughout the work, dissonance in the music seems to challenge the sense of the traditional text. This climactic section distills the ambiguity of the whole.

In section three, the baritone soloist, rising out of the choral community praying “Deliver them from the lion’s maw,” utters his own prayer: “Enable them, Lord, to cross over from death into life.” That same soloist opens the penultimate section, before again giving way to the choral community. Formerly, he sang about “them”; now he sings: “Deliver me, Lord, from everlasting death.” The choral text here is filled with seismic terror, as the singers imagine the heavens and the earth collapsing into chaos. This section ends, as the soprano soloist’s did, with a quiet iteration of its opening phrase.

This iteration segues into one of the most exquisite finales in choral repertory; in it, the chorus dreams of entering “In Paradisum.” The dream itself offers the aspirants hope and consolation. The chorus sings, “A chorus of angels will bear you up, and like Lazarus, who used to be a pauper, you will have everlasting peace.” The section’s close, which is the music’s close, is one of the most deliciously drawn-out cadences in all choral music. Over a dozen measures of low bass F-sharp pedal point, the voices, gradually diminishing, modulate toward a final shimmering, unforgettable dissonant chord. The vital tension between orthodoxy and agnosticism—what the text finally says and what the music finally does—is Duruflé’s musical thumbprint.

Both soloists are able singers. The baritone is Kenneth Lee, chair of vocal studies at Elon College in North Carolina. He is a regular recitalist and guest soloist all around the country. He sang Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with the Nashville Symphony here in 1991. The mezzo-soprano is Emily Bullock, a member of the voice faculty at Belmont. She too is a regular recitalist and guest soloist all around the country. She has performed widely in music theater, operetta, and opera. Last week she sang the role of Emilia, Iago’s wife, in Nashville Opera’s smashing production of Verdi’s Otello. She has the intensity and the dramatic presence demanded by the climactic movement of this Requiem.

Duruflé’s choral writing in this piece is likewise masterful. His inventiveness and his taste are flawless; the writing is filled with delightful surprises. His respect for human voices as instruments is rare and wonderful: The voice-writing is comfortably placed, and the drama is so conceived that big dramatic moments are rare, and therefore enormously effective. The orchestral writing derives from that respect for voices, so that singers need not fear being buried. If rehearsal is anything to go by, this performance should compare well with last year’s Carmina.

The Requiem is the evening’s centerpiece. The Symphony alone will open the program with Aleksandr Skriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, a quasi-mystical 1908 tone poem. The following Duruflé will be well worth the wait. Then, after an intermission, the orchestra will play one of Mozart’s last symphonies—the “Prague,” written for a performance there in 1786. In the Italian three-movement form instead of the customary four, this symphony (number 38 of the composer’s total of 41) was written shortly before the opera Don Giovanni, when Mozart’s career was already crumbling into a pauper’s grave. Some critics hear seeds of Giovanni’s turbulence early in the first movement, but from there on, and especially in the concluding presto, Mozart’s genius is at its delightfully lucid best. It may seem ironic to follow Duruflé’s complex and somber Requiem with such jovial brilliance. Indeed it is, and quite properly so.

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