Tuesday evening’s big choral-orchestral extravaganza at the well-packed Gaillard Auditorium offered a choice array of some of the finest and most beloved sacred choral music known to mankind. None who were there will ever forget it.
As I’ve said in past reviews of both Dr. Flummerfelt’s concerts and his CDs, the miracle of working as a choral singer with this man is that he can take a competent, yet not widely known municipal choir like Robert Taylor’s Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (CSOC), and make them sound better than they ever thought they possibly could. Of course, he combines the Charleston singers with the magnificent voices of the Westminster Choir (WC), which helps put his combined vocal forces on a par with the nation’s finest symphonic choruses. And I speak here from personal experience: it was my great joy and privilege to sing under Flummerfelt’s direction as a member of the CSOC in eight Spoleto events. He not only taught me more about choral singing than anybody else on the planet, but gave me the chance, over eight seasons, to help make music on a world-class level, even if only as a small part of the action.
The evening’s fare began with some of the softest, sweetest, and deepest shorter masterpieces we have. W. A. Mozart’s exquisite miniature, Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618, was the final piece of sacred choral music that he completed before his untimely death in 1791. It stands as potent testimony to his ability to produce absolutely deathless music with the simplest means possible. At the conductor’s request, the audience refrained from applause until after the following number, as clapping would’ve destroyed the spiritual spell that the music had cast upon us.
It even seemed a shame to applaud after the following music: Giuseppe Verdi’s equally soft and deeply reverent Ave Maria. It seems a miracle that Verdi, an avowed atheist, could’ve written sacred music of such sweetness and ethereal profundity. One of his Four Sacred Pieces, the work is the only a cappella item of the group, and it was written using a harmonically daring new approach that presaged the music of the 20th century that was just dawning when he died. Here, the music extended the gentle sacred trance that Mozart’s music had begun; delivering the two pieces in succession was an adroit bit of concert programming.
The following piece, also from Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, was his sensitive and grief-wracked setting of the classic Stabat Mater hymn-text that countless composers have been lending musical wings to ever since the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi wrote it back in the 13th century. The text is a heart-wrenching depiction of the Virgin Mary as she follows Jesus’ suffering and tortured death by crucifixion. How would you feel, if you had to bear witness to your son’s final agony and death? Again, despite Verdi’s lack of conventional religious faith, one must wonder if he might’ve been having second thoughts as his life drew to its close (this was his final work). Still, the music ends with a pall of musical darkness that seems to confirm the final, unbridgeable gap between him and the almighty. Still, Verdi knew how to do spiritual.
After intermission came French 20th-century master Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, Op. 9: his undisputed masterpiece. But then, many of the very few other works that Duruflé left us are masterpieces, too. He was a notoriously finicky perfectionist who destroyed most of what he wrote. This work is a magical fusion of Gregorian chant, ancient church-modes and French impressionist harmony and style — and it remains perhaps the most effective chant-based work of larger scale that we have. It’s often performed under more intimate circumstances, done by a smaller choir and with organ or small string orchestra. But, like the earlier Requiem by Duruflé’s compatriot, Gabriel Fauré (which served as a model for this work), the composer also provided the version with full orchestral support heard here. The piece is full of contrasts with both limpid, floating chant episodes and passages of sustained power and sacred passion. The piece contains only two rather limited solo roles: for mezzo-soprano (Katharine Goeldner) and baritone (Tyler Duncan); both were delivered flawlessly, with great sacred sensitivity and vocal beauty.
Performances of all of the program’s selections were exemplary in every respect. The ever-reliable Spoleto Festival Orchestra was, as usual, most impressive, and the hybrid chorus was in top form — as good as I’ve ever heard them. In fact, the massed singers absolutely outdid themselves in places, generating so much “joyful noise” in some of the louder passages that they came within a gnat’s whisker of drowning out their very solid orchestral colleagues. And I don’t mean that as a negative comment, as those were some of the evening’s most thrilling moments.
And, after the last lovely notes wafted their way heavenward and the appreciative audience’s rapturous applause erupted, a church musician friend of mine turned from his seat in front of me, wiping tears from his eyes, and said to me, “There IS a God!” More than that, I need not say.