Masterworks Chorale puts on a gem

Masterworks Chorale performed at the Congregational Church of San Mateo last Sunday.

Masterworks Chorale’s spring concert attracted me for its program of living American composers. In instrumental music, the plain listener may approach such a repertoire with caution, but there’s a vast number of composers writing interesting, emotionally affecting, agreeable tonal music ideally suited for the capacities of a nonprofessional choir.

It’s easy to make up a gem of a program, and Bryan Baker, artistic director and conductor of the Masterworks Chorale, found some good ones for last Sunday’s concert at the Congregational Church of San Mateo.

The highlights began with a first performance of the one work not by an American. Masterworks and a consortium of choruses across the United States commissioned “The Real of Heart” from the English composer Bob Chilcott, and Masterworks got to perform it first. It’s a short piece of rich mixed overlapping lines, with piano accompaniment played by Inara Morgenstern. It’s well designed for such a choir as this.

Even better was the chorus and strings arrangement of Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs” to texts by Whitacre’s wife to be, composed in a mixture of Middle Eastern and American pastoral styles, exhibiting a tender beauty.

The American composer whose name is most likely to turn up on a program such as this is Morten Lauridsen. Like Whitacre’s, his name is little known outside chorus circles but famous within them. His serene, mystical music wasn’t on the program, but showed up as the encore, with a piece titled “Sure on this Shining Night.”

Best of all was a pair of traditional spirituals which closed the main program: “Hush” arranged by Connaitre Miller with a little hand percussion as the only accompaniment, and “This Train is Bound for Glory” arranged by Gwyneth Walker with strings. Most of the members of Masterworks are not perhaps the first people you’d think of for spirituals. But without dropping into it as far as jazz-style improvisations, they caught the swing that’s vital in this music, singing with full, bold confidence. It was terrific.

The most adventuresome piece on the program was John Corigliano’s “Fern Hill.” From his comments before the piece, it’s clear that Dr. Baker is deeply moved by the nostalgic poem by Dylan Thomas which it sets. To perform this was a challenge for the chorus, but a challenge too far. Corigliano is not a “comfortable” tonal composer. Best known for a symphony in anguished remembrance of AIDS victims, he writes chromatic modernist music that in “Fern Hill” expresses itself in antiphonal blocking of the male and female voices. Neither the chorus nor the string players could handle this advanced music securely, nor did the emotional impact of Thomas’ poem really come through.

Two other somewhat challenging pieces were more successful: “Tundra,” a fuzzily atmospheric post-minimalist work for women’s voices by Ola Gjeilo, and “Tree of Peace,” a recitative-like piece for male voices by Gwyneth Walker. Both could have used more of the boldness that Masterworks brought to its spirituals, but they made good listening. Both were accompanied on piano by Morgenstern.

The concert had a few extras besides the encore. Morgenstern and Baker played a few four-hand piano pieces, semi-amusing ones by Corigliano and entirely comic by P.D.Q. Bach. And guest mezzo Meghan Dibble, who had sung a solo verse in “Fern Hill,” also performed two charming and witty modern solo art songs accompanied by Baker: “Amor” by William Bolcom, in the persona of a woman with an extreme propensity for attracting suitors, and “In the Beginning” by Jake Heggie, a stealthy and ironic cat’s-eye view of the creation of the universe.

Those two songs and the two spirituals alone would have made this concert worth attending.

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