February 15, 2010 in City

Chorale shows range of Mozart’s Requiem

Travis Rivers Correspondent

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem is a strangely wondrous work, and the Spokane Symphony, Symphony Chorale and an excellent quartet of soloists made more of its wonder than its strangeness as the featured work in Saturday’s performance at The Fox.

A week ago, Spokane audiences had a chance to hear Bach’s Mass in B minor, followed this weekend by Mozart’s Requiem – two of the great Mass compositions whose spiritual impact reach way beyond the adherents of the Roman Catholic faith. Both Gunther Schuller in Bach and Eckart Preu in Mozart strongly conveyed their emotional power.

The strangeness of Mozart’s Requiem lies in how little of it Mozart actually completed. He fully finished only the Requiem’s opening “Introitus,” leaving much of the rest as vocal parts with a bass line and some sketches of the instrumentation. For the last four sections, Mozart left nothing when he died. The Requiem was finished by Franz Xaver Süssmeyr, a 25-year-old musician who had studied composition with Mozart briefly and served as his assistant.

Süssmeyr worked in haste and with very limited talent, but amazingly he shaped a great work “rising beyond his limitation,” Preu said in his pre-concert talk.

The Requiem is basically a choral work, and the Symphony Chorale – more than 80 voices strong – gave a very flavorful account of the Requiem. The explosion of the opening of “Rex tremendae” contrasted with the quiet beauty of “Lacrimosa.” The complexity of the counterpoint in the “Kyrie” and the same music’s repetition at the closing “Communio” was clear and articulate. Equally impressive was the orchestral playing. Preu admitted in the pre-concert talk that balance was not easily achieved among singers and instrumentalists given the “amber sound” of an orchestra without the bright-sounding flutes or oboes. But Preu made it work.

The solo quartet – soprano Esther Heideman, mezzo-soprano, MaryAnn McCormick, tenor Marcus Shelton and baritone John Packard – were a balanced ensemble, as Mozart required. No showy stuff – just a beautiful blend. Only Heideman had a true solo stint in the “Introitus” and the closing “Communio.”

The concert began with a surprise. Mozart’s famous “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” was performed by a small group of strings with no conductor. Its four movements were filled with the energy and striking contrasts Preu might have brought to it had he been on stage. But the players paid very close attention to one another and brought a beautifully expressive range of dynamics often missing from conductorless ensembles. And there was unanimity in the players’ bending of the tempo here and there for expressive purposes – like a super string quartet in action.

The symphony’s principal flutist, Bruce Bodden, and principal harpist, Earecka Tregenza, showed how beautifully Mozart could write for two instruments on the edge of their emergence into their modern forms. The bright tone of the flute and the sparkle of the harp were combined in the 23-year-old Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp and its discreet but skillfully colorful orchestration.

Each of the concerto’s three movements offered the opportunity for a cadenza for the two soloists. Mozart did not write any, but the 19th-century composer, conductor and Mozart enthusiast Carl Reinecke did. Never mind that Reinecke’s cadenzas had harmonies that seem more like Felix Mendelssohn or Robert Schumann, Bodden and Tregenza took obvious pleasure in Reinecke’s un-Mozartian twists and made them seem apt 19th-century comments on Mozart’s 18th-century tunes.

As an encore of the Requiem, Preu led the orchestra, the solo quartet and the chorale in Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus,” a short choral motet composed just before he began writing the Requiem. It was a perfect ending to the symphony’s Mozartian valentine.

The concert will be broadcast on KPBX Public Radio FM 91.1 at 7 p.m. today.

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