William Adams, DMA

To conclude their 33rd season, the Concert Singers of Cary, under the direction of Dr. Nathan Leaf, and in conjunction with Mallarmé Music, chose two works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The first, Dixit et Magnificat, is lesser known, composed in 1774 when Mozart was only 18 years of age. The second work is arguably the most well-known large-scale choral work ever written, the Requiem. Left unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791 and finished by his student, Franz Xavier Süssmayr, Requiem has captured our imagination for more than 200 years with performances but also with speculations about the events surrounding its commission. It receives thousands of performances annually all across the world.

In the “Concert Notes” for the program, the Dixit is described in comparison to the Requiem as “a lovely opposite bookend for Mozart’s adult life as a composer of sacred choral music.” Indeed, it is a compact, concise work, “simpler” in its design and employing a smaller orchestra. While the compositional gestures may not be as sophisticated or mature as those in the Requiem, it is still Mozart and is still possessed with the grace, charm, and wit one expects from any of his works, vocal or instrumental.

The choir performed the Dixit exceptionally well. Their tone was bright and present and they sang with clear, precise Latin diction. The orchestra was crisp and played with great sensitivity, especially with the soloists. Only occasionally, usually when the brass were present, were there balance issues which can be attributed more to the design of the hall and the acoustics and less to any lack of finesse on the part of the orchestra.

The focal point of the evening, however, was the towering Requiem. From the instrumental introduction of the Introitus the magnitude and gravitas of Mozart’s only mass for the dead is made clear. Both the choir and the orchestra changed the very nature of their sounds, not just in deference to the subject matter, but in a way that seemed to recognize the bridge to the 19th century that is in part established through Requiem. Mozart’s lyricism, range of expression, even his harmonic vocabulary are not just the product of being at the other bookend of his adult compositional life, but are beyond the works of his contemporaries in 1791. It is no mystery why his works were such a profound influence on Beethoven and other composers of the 19th century, and beyond.

It was clear from the beginning that the choir had studied the texts in detail, discussing symbolism and imagery. Their singing was imbued with intent, nuance based not just on some musical marking but on an understanding of the text. They sang with great intensity and fire in the Dies irae and showed enormous contrast of both volume and inflection in the Rex tremendae. The men were particularly strong in the Confutatis with the “voca me” echoes in the sopranos and altos sung delicately and with superb control.

Their best dynamic control and intent was demonstrated during the Lacrymosa. Each statement had a beautifully shaped arc with the final syllable de-stressed perfectly. One of the hallmarks of a particularly well-trained ensemble is their ability to sing in octaves or in unison well. There are moments in the Domine Jesu Christe that ask a lot of the choir; all were handled exceptionally well.

Requiem is a demanding work. The ranges for all four sections push community groups past their comfort zones. There are moments of long, lyrical phrases contrasted with moments of great intensity and fire. The choir is expected to demonstrate their skills at shaping slow, long passages and then their agility in singing complicated melismas. The sopranos and basses occasionally showed signs of reaching their upper limits in range, but never compromising their sound. The altos were the cleanest of all the sections with their coloratura, showing excellent dexterity and precision throughout the section. The slightly understaffed tenor section rose to the occasion valiantly and never allowed the balance to suffer and never compromised their sound in the process.

Conductors of elite professional ensembles rarely if ever have to worry about “keeping the group together.” They may occasionally make a gesture indicating a bit more or less sound from a section or an individual, but it’s rare you’ll see them need to corral the musicians together because someone is rushing or dragging or missed an entrance, etc. Their gestural language then is purely artistic and expressive. On the other hand, conductors who work with less proficient, amateur ensembles spend most of their time as technicians, corralling musicians who have gone astray of the time, adjusting balances, making sure a given section is looking at you before that next big entrance. Their gestures require great precision. They try and build as much expression into their gestures as they can, but the focus must be on clarity. However, when you have ensembles the caliber of the Concert Singers of Cary and Mallarmé Music, you expect to be far more focused on the expressive, artistic elements of conducting, with only the occasional need to be the technician. 

Nathan Leaf is a remarkably fluid and expressive conductor. His gestures are elegant and refined but his presence is equally strong and commanding on the podium. What is perhaps most impressive about his skills as a conductor is his ability to be so expressive and then, when needed, become the technician to correct whatever imbalance or timing error he hears all  the while camouflaging this shift so that it appears as just another artistic moment.

Soloists in a Mozart opera or in one of his many masses, are often expected to be virtuosos. One can expect to be pushed to the limits in terms of range, agility, and expression. Mozart also expects equal proficiency in ensemble singing as he does in solo singing. By his later operas, and certainly Requiem, this was particularly true. In analyzing the performances by the soloists for this performance, it is difficult to determine if the occasional issue with balance was more a result of their positioning on the stage and the acoustics and design of the space or if there was an actual issue with a voice either being too small or too large at the time.

Be that as it may, the four soloists were excellent. Each displayed characteristics in their singing that Mozart himself would likely have favored. Soprano Lucy Kimbell has an exceptionally agile, graceful voice. Her tone was pure and clear and utterly expressive. Her bio suggests a broad range of styles and repertoire. While it would be delightful to hear her on more contemporary repertoire, it isn’t difficult to imagine her specializing in early music. Her coloratura is exquisite and her attention to stylistic detail was equally impressive. In her solos, mezzo-soprano Jami Rhodes brought forth a lush, rich tone that would be quite comfortable singing more dramatic works of the late 19th century. When singing in ensemble with the other soloists, she showed a remarkable ability to complement their sounds while not compromising her own. Dr. Rhodes’ singing was quite sensitive and beautifully nuanced. For whatever else he may have sung during his career, Robert Bracey is the quintessential Mozart Tenor. Dr. Bracey effortlessly realized Mozart with relentless control and consistency. His tone sparkled through the texture of the orchestra and was always present and perfectly balanced. Bass-Baritone Coleridge Nash has a strong and clear instrument with easy access to the highest and lowest extremes of the range. His tone is bright and resonant with enough steel to effortlessly cut through an orchestra and fill the hall.

As has been mentioned a few times in this review, the design of Westwood Baptist Church presents challenges in presenting a concert, which, of course, it was not designed to do. The musicians are not centered in the space and are angled in such a way as to be presenting to only about one third of the audience. This angle creates balance problems on occasion; the brass in the orchestra were arranged to face out to the entire room whereas the cellos were playing more into the corner. The soloists were also arranged to face more toward the corner. Roughly two thirds of the audience were either lateral to or even slightly behind the musicians. The space itself is lovely and the acoustic is warm and clear. Audiences should be aware the “best” seats will be left of center.

Mozart’s Requiem is not to be attempted by your average community choir. It requires great control, precision, dynamic expression, and stamina. The Concert Singers of Cary and the instrumentalists of Mallarmé Music did not perform at the level of your average community choir. Indeed, they exceeded all expectations and presented a Requiem worthy of many professional oratorio societies.