Chicago Master Singers prove too overwhelming for Bach and Mozart in reverberant venue

Sat Apr 16, 2011 at 10:24 am

By Gerald Fisher

Alan Heatherington led the Chicago Master Singers in music of Bach, Handel and Mozart Friday night at Divine Word Chapel in Techny.

The grandeur of sacred music by three of the greatest masters of the genre was on exhibit Friday evening at the monumental Divine Word Chapel in Techny. Alan Heatheringon directed the large forces of the Chicago Master Singers and a smaller group of instrumentalists taken from his Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra in cantatas by Bach, a mass by Mozart and two coronation anthems by Handel.

The performance was notable more for its intent than its execution. There were moments of vivacity and bravura, especially in the Handel, but the large 130-member chorus and the reverberance of the chapel made for a bloated sound that sacrificed refinement and subtlety in the performances.

The huge size of the chorus was especially unfortunate in the Bach cantatas, two of which, BWV 4 and BWV 150, were performed in their entirety. Early music performance practice has come a long way since the days of the Beecham Choral Society. Even if purists sometimes go too far in stripping away the layers of sound, so much artistry has been revealed by attention to detail and linear clarity that it seems retrograde to go back to the performances of yesteryear where all was monochromatic choral molasses spread indiscriminately over everything.

But Heatherington seems to have opted for this approach, and although there was a genuine emotional commitment and some nice touches in the brass and timpani, they didn’t make up for the inability to distinguish words or differentiate among sections so that the impression was of a sameness that was rather wearing.

Not all was lost however.  There was some good playing from the orchestra, particularly in the strings and specifically from principle cellist Steven Hauser, and the instrumentalists held their own against the chorus in a consistently balanced manner that did justice to the ritornellos and passagework.

Mozart’s Vesperae solemnes de confessore K 339 is an impressive work that places him in the lineage of Bach and Handel and at the same time reveals the great original gracefully opting out of the standard choices, particularly notable in the instrumental contributions to the Confitebor movement. Here again the orchestra distinguished itself, but the chorus sounded alarmingly similar to the preceding Bach performance.

The sublime soprano solo Laudate Dominum survived intact but pointed up some problems with using singers from among the ranks of the chorus. The soloists were not really up to the required level of Mozartean refinement, and since they performed from their spots in the ensemble, the whole notion of a separate vocal quartet was missing.

The evening ended with two of Handel’s most familiar Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest and The King Shall Rejoice and here, at last, the forces seemed more appropriate to the task at hand.  There was a nice transition from the instrumental opening of Zadok to the grand entrance of the chorus in one of the greatest pieces of ceremonial music in the European tradition. In this as with the performance of The King Shall Rejoice the Master Singers and the Ars Viva instrumentalists were convincingly bold and enthusiastic.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Sunday at the Divine Word Chapel.; 877-825-5267.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Chicago Master Singers prove too overwhelming for Bach and Mozart in reverberant venue”

  1. Posted Apr 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm by Alan Heatherington

    Sometimes a review tells us much more about the critic and his presuppositions than about the performance itself, an unfortunate affair since readers often accept critical opinion at face value on the assumption that the critic is well-informed. It is a comparatively small matter that Mr. Fisher erroneously refers to Mozart’s Vespers as a “mass,” that he incorrectly refers to “the whole notion of a separate vocal quartet” (something that Mozart would have found utterly inconceivable) and that he misspells both the title and name of the sole performer he singles out for approbation (“principle cellist Hauser,” who is principal cellist Houser).

    But the matter of grave concern has to do with Fisher’s pre-prejudicial assumptions about a performance that, on its very obvious surface, was not in any way attempting to replicate “authentic” performance forces. To accept what he has written is to declare that under no circumstances should a large, volunteer choral ensemble be permitted to perform masterworks of Bach and Mozart in an acoustical setting quite identical to that for which these works were originally composed. Has he never heard this music in any European cathedral, even with very small ensembles? Lack of clarity is the order of the day, regardless of what he may hear on digitally analytical CDs.

    It seems apparent that Mr. Fisher entered the chapel, saw a large choral ensemble and stopped listening to the crisp diction (observed by audience members in the very back of the chapel), sharp articulations, nuanced phrasing and carefully judged balances that distinguished this performance. If he found it possible to find stylish playing from the “smaller group of instrumentalists” who “held their own against the chorus in a consistently balanced manner,” then he could not have concluded that the “bloated sound” produced “monochromatic choral molasses,” a cute turn of phrase with which virtually no one in the audience would have concurred. To state that the conductor, in any respect other than the use of a large chorus, “opted” for the approach of the “Beecham Choral Society” is to have overlooked every nuance the chorus painstakingly produced.

    But in the end, here is the question I posed to David Schrader several decades ago when he came to town already thoroughly immersed in period instrument performance practice: should modern instrumentalists, larger choral ensembles and non-specialists entirely abandon performance of 18th century repertoire and leave it to whatever “authentic” forces may exist? His response was a resounding, “Absolutely not!” The singers of the Chicago Master Singers must have the occasional opportunity to come to terms with this astonishing repertoire, and their large and loyal following must have occasional opportunities to hear it performed by them. We will not apologize for our infrequent excursions into the works of Bach and Mozart. Even such fanatical purists as Schrader and, believe it or not, myself, will never back down.

  2. Posted Apr 18, 2011 at 7:19 am by Jennifer Johnson

    I am not sure about Friday’s performance, but you should have been at last night’s performance. The Soprano soloist was amazing!

  3. Posted Apr 21, 2011 at 9:32 am by Steven Houser (Hauser)...

    I just so happened to be at both Chicago Master Singers performances and I must say “Kudos and Brava” to Friday nights wonderful Soprano soloist, not to mention all the vocal soloists who performed in these wonderful concerts. To step forward and sing a solo in front of a packed house at Techny in front of ones peers coming at the end of a huge vocally challenging program is worthy of high praise indeed. The entire Choir is quite amazing!!

    I have been fortunate to be in attendance for many of the CMS performances and I can tell you, that you do not sell out the house, concert after concert, without delivering a great product.

    I must also add, “Brava” to Tracy Figard organist, whos concert opening grand organ solo began the program.

Leave a Comment