JWR Articles: Live Event - Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (Conductor: Robert Page) - June 13, 2004

Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh

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Multi-discipline program yields mixed results

To kick off the 27th Annual Chorus America Conference (being held concurrently with the first National Performing Arts Convention), Robert Page fashioned a program that spanned the centuries of choral music, bringing glitter, greatness and gesture to the stage of Heinz Hall.

Celebrating his twenty-fifth season with this remarkable chorus, Page’s hallmarks of homogenous tone, driving tempi and disciplined diction were effortlessly spun into play as he conducted the concert’s first half.

The long lines of Verdi’s Ave Maria were shaped with thought and care, rising and falling at will, rendered with near-perfect intonation and immensely satisfying dynamic control.

Barber’s Agnus Dei was less successful. The music has had such a varied life, as a movement from a string quartet, full-bodied string orchestra Adagio (forever ruined as pure music by its inclusion in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where the images of death flood memory from the first phrase) and a choral setting.

This performance never found its inner pulse, moving along but not forward to the full-cry climax, then left merely a space rather than a soundless reflection before the quiet, ironic last “hurrah” disappeared into the night.

Guest organist John Walker was the gallant accompanist for the evening’s finest musical offering. Kodály’s Missa Brevis showed the ensemble at its best (particularly the “Gloria” and the “Sanctus”), providing many opportunities for the choir’s solo voices to shine.

J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, choreographed nearly twenty years ago by Salvatore Aiello and conducted by David Briskin fell short of a successful convergence of concert music and dance. Decked out in white sweat tops and uniform beige bottoms, the seventeen dancers swamped the limited space in front of the reduced chorus, narrowly avoiding on-stage collisions as the feature singers made their way from the security of the SATB clumps to the solo space.

The athleticism and zest of the company are undoubted, but the ensemble pieces during the choruses were too busy; the flying bodies blurring the pit-to-stage communication line were, no doubt, partially responsible for the distressing lack of togetherness between the voices and orchestra. Unfortunately, the intended goal of the choreography to “mirror the spirit and text of the music without expressing any literal translation” provided few moments of artistic expression that added much to the understanding of Bach’s oft-revised work.

It fell to the Arias, particularly “For He that is mighty,” (Nathan Motta, bass, Jiabin Pan solo dancer) and “He hath filled the hungry,” (Katherine Murphy, alto; Maribel Modrono solo dancer) to demonstrate the full potential of blending movement with music as a means of underlining the emotional depth of the score. The gender fluid (cross-reference below) subtext of the couplings, triplings, et cetera gave the production a contemporary edge that seemed miles away from parishioners’ souls magnifying the Lord.

Amen. JWR

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Conductor - Robert Page
Conductor - David Briskin
Accompanist - John Walker (I)
Bass - Nathan Motta
Ave Maria - Giuseppe Verdi
Agnus Dei - Samuel Barber
Missa Brevis - Zoltán Kodály
Magnificat - Johann Sebastian Bach
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