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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Concert Review: A Militant Faith

The Orchestra of St. Luke's and La Chapelle de Québec get mass-ive.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New Orchestra of St. Luke's principal conductor Bernard Labadie (center)
lead vocal soloists  (soprano Lauren Snouffer, mezzo Susan Graham, tenor Lothar Odinius and bass-baritone Philippe Sly)
 and La Chapelle de Québec (rear)in a concert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. Photo by Adam Stoltman © 2018 Orchestra of St. Luke's
In its 44-year history, the musical direction of the Orchestra of St. Luke's has been steered by the musician appointed to the post of Principal Conductor. The latest to take the job is Bernard Labadie, the Quebécois conductor and early music specialist. So it is unsurprising that Mr. Labadie's first concert at Carnegie Hall leading his new orchestra was sacred music: Haydn's "Nelson" Mass and the Mozart Requiem.

What was surprising, though was the physical arrangement of the orchestra and the choristers of La Chapelle de Québec, the vocal ensemble that Mr. Labadie founded in 1985. The singers were arranged in a single row that flanked and encircled the orchestra, spanning the entirety of the Perelman Stage. This, plus the arrangement of the two double basses opposite each other flanking the portative organ allowed for a very different sound than the usual choral set-up at Carnegie: bringing out the rich detail in the writing of both Haydn and Mozart.

There is a perception, though a fallacious one, that Haydn, as the inventor of the string quartet and father of the symphony predates Mozart on the time-line of music history. Mozart died in 1791, but Haydn, (who had a career spanning six decades) died at the age of 77 in 1809. (Incidentally, the Mozart Requiem was played at his funeral.) Be that as it may, the Missa in Angustiis (which became popularly known as the Nelson Mass after that British admiral attended a performance of it in 1800) was written seven years after the Requiem. This mass is a product of Haydn's late style, in which the innovations of his final symphonies were applied enthusiastically to vocal music.

Haydn was working with limited resources at his longtime home of Esterházy, due to cutbacks from the current crown prince. He was forced to compose this piece without the luxury of woodwinds, as the players had been sent home, permanently. He compensated for their absence with inventive use of trumpets, voices and the portative organ. The brass dominance gives this work a bold and military flair, and the bold rhythms and determined, forward thrust points the way forward to the apocalyptic final pages of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

The quartet of soloists (soprano Lauren Snouffer, mezzo Susan Graham, tenor Lothar Odinius and bass-baritone Philippe Sly) responded to this unfamiliar music with enthusiasm. Ms. Snouffer dominated the early movements, singing soaring melismatic passages over the bustle of the orchestra. Ms. Graham shone in the Agnus Dei. The most surprising passage is the Benedictus, in which the simple blessing turned into a dark night of the soul before the chorus finally brought welcome major-key relief.

Mozart's Requiem is his last, unfinished work, which only exists in complete form due to the determination of his widow Constanze and the diligence of his pupil Franz Xavier Süssmayer. Here, the piece was played in a new 1993 edition by musicologist Robert Levin, which "corrects" and extends some of Herr Süssmayer's later passages, which are wholly the pupil's invention in the first place. One major fugue is extended in length, and the whole, to this listener felt balanced and not as rushed as other performances of this work can feel.

Mr. Labadie took a measured approach with the famous opening movement, letting the Orchestra players make their own statement. The four soloists also made considerable contributions, especially in the early movements of the work which are from Mozart's hand--and thus contain the more inventive vocal writing. (He died, incidentally, working on the Lacrymosa from the Sequence.) The latter Süssmayer movements took flight too, as the rich and precise detail of the vocal writing emerged via the Chapelle de Québec singers.

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