The Sacramento Choral Calendar
UC Davis University Chorus & Orchestra
Son of God Mass - December 5, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
It was a major concert event at the University of California, Davis on a Saturday night at Mondavi Center. The University Chorus and University Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas, were to be presenting a seasonal concert, highlighting a performance of James Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass.
There are things you can do at a large university like UC Davis that you just can’t do in other places. For one thing, you can assemble dozens and dozens of orchestra members who will play without compensation, many of them exceptionally talented students in the Department of Music. The same goes for the chorus: 85 singers, all auditioned and mostly students, but with a fair number of what are apparently non-matriculated participants. With all that talent on the stage, the result was, of course, magnificent — even discounting the extraordinary acoustics of Mondavi Center.
My guess is that the audience was full of serious music lovers. One clue to that fact was this. There was an informal concert in the lobby with a pianist and several string players performing classical music. This mini-concert drew a very large crowd a full half-hour before the choral performance, and people stood listening for what had to be 10, 15 or even 20 minutes.
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First on the concert program was Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” arguably his most popular composition. I’ve performed it myself in years past and heard it performed many more times, but never more beautifully than tonight. I perceived early on that this rendition was heavy on the bass part, and soon it dawned on me that it was the organ supporting the bass line. That’s fine. I’ve heard what is probably the first recording of this piece with Paul Salamunovich directing the Los Angeles Master Chorale. His interpretation of the composition emphasized the treble voices to the point that one could hardly make out the bass at all (or at least that’s the way this bass-baritone heard it). But emphasizing the bass brings out so much of the richness of the work, and that richness was abundant on this occasion — and immensely satisfying — as the upper voices embraced the exquisite dissonances in this masterpiece.
With that taste of Lauridsen it was gratifying to immediately get more in his Lux Aeterna. In the orchestral “Introit,” I was struck by how much it evoked a sunrise, or the emergence of light. When the chorus entered, I felt that Director Thomas maintained a good balance between the orchestra and chorus. And watching the singers, it occurred to me that many of them seemed to have the whole piece or at least long passages committed to memory. And especially in the occasional passages that were performed a cappella or with a single instrument, they produced a brilliant, unified sound. Texts and translations were in the program, and that was a good thing because, with so large a chorus, it was often difficult to make out the words being sung. But the emotion of the music was clear.
The performance of the “O Nata Lux” movement in particular had all the transcendent beauty of the “O Magnum Mysterium.” Then as the “Agnus Dei” began, I became conscious of the elegant phrasing I had been hearing all along that had made for such satisfying listening to this point. Lauridsen’s music is so accessible, so inviting, so engaging, and by the end of the “Agnus Dei,” it felt to me like the chorus, conscious of all that, wasn’t so much singing as caressing the notes.
Appreciating the wonderful soaring sounds in the beginning of the “Lux Aeterna,” my attention focused on Jeffrey Thomas. His directing was assured, expressive and precise, and though the score was laid out in front of him, I don’t recall having seen him turn any pages.
After a sequence of exuberant “alleluias,” the energy wound down into the final “amens” and the softest pianissimo I could imagine coming from so large a chorus. The audience’s reaction was almost instantaneous: enthusiastic applause and whoops that were out of character with the music, but completely understandable.
The first piece after intermission was James Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass. I had been looking forward to my first hearing of this contemporary work, which premiered in 2001. The solo saxophone of Garrett Hagwood was featured throughout, and in fact he began (as I recall) each of the major sections of this 24-minute performance. The initial short saxophone riff was followed by what I can only describe as a drone, and it sounded almost eerie. The rest of the “Kyrie” was full of interesting musical ideas, and the organ part made this whole section quite stirring for me. Soprano Olivia Thorne gave a solid performance, and I was surprised how well her strong voice carried through the hall.
The “Gloria” was full of contrasts for the chorus, with some lovely melodic sections. I’ll confess, though, that I often found the organ overpowering in this section. Throughout this piece there were many lovely, even memorable lines for the chorus, and I think the “Agnus Dei” could be performed by itself in an eclectic choral concert and received enthusiastically by any audience that appreciates good choral music. And I think that any choral singer with a taste for classical music would enjoy learning and performing the whole mass. Of course, it’s unthinkable without an outstanding saxophonist. As I listened, I really warmed to the idea of the saxophone playing such a prominent role in the mass. The composer gave that instrument such interesting lyrical lines, which were played masterfully and sensitively by Garrett Hagwood.
As the piece concluded, the orchestra (which had been sitting in silence) seemed particularly enthused, though the audience was far from indifferent — they responded with enthusiastic, extended applause and the same whoops we had heard earlier.
It appears that Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” was added to the concert plan after the program book was printed. And how fortunate we were that it was included tonight! I’ve heard this piece many, many times since my college years many decades ago. And as I listened tonight, I found myself wondering whether Vaughan Williams had ever composed anything so lush and emotionally engaging, highlighted as it was with fine solos by flute and harp.
I don’t recall having heard before the concluding selection in tonight’s concert, Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” The program presents some interesting commentary on these 4 carols: “This Is the Truth Sent from Above,” “Come All You Worthy Gentlemen,” “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing” and “God Bless the Ruler of This House” — and I recommend that you consult those notes and the other program notes. Soloist Nikolas Nackley (a George Clooney look-alike) delivered a fine performance in this piece — expressive, with very a listenable tone and good articulation — which meant all the more during passages of minimal or no accompaniment by the orchestra.
The first carol had, for me, much appreciated echoes of the style of the “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Overall, this composition offered a variety of musical styles, many energetic and rhythmic, calling up some fine nimble singing by the chorus. The piece built to an exuberant, joyous climax before fading away, to be replaced by the enthusiastic applause and cheers of the audience which had been given an early Christmas gift: a rich, satisfying concert experience.