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March 17, 2009

Whispered Prayers Recall a Disaster in the Baltic Sea

New York Times:

Orchestral and choral conductors often use noticeably different gestures. When Charles Bruffy led the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale in an enjoyable a cappella concert at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening, he seemed to be sculpturing in air: carefully molding each finely hued note he coaxed from his choristers.

The highlight of the concert was “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi. This harmonically rich work is a requiem for the more than 800 passengers who died when the luxury ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994. It incorporates the Latin text used in a report of the disaster by “Nuntii Latini” (“News in Latin,” a news broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company) and the Psalm text “They that go down to the sea in ships.”

The work, composed in 1997, began with the choirs whispering a prayer from the Mass for the Dead as the soprano Kira Z. Rugen, standing in a balcony at the side of the hall, sang a gentle solo, her voice soaring above the chorus. After a somber delivery of the news section, the intensity increased in the Psalm reading. “Canticum” concluded with the whispered prayers of the opening verse.

The choirs’ refined sound and elegant phrasing were further displayed in the “Drei Geistliche Gesänge” (“Three Sacred Songs”) by the 19th-century composer Josef Rheinberger. The first half of the program also included excerpts from the Passion Week cycle by Alexander Gretchaninoff. He belonged to a circle of composers (including Rachmaninoff) who wrote unaccompanied sacred choral music and were sometimes referred to as the New Russian Choral School.

While not as breathtakingly beautiful as Rachmaninoff’s liturgical works, Gretchaninoff’s setting is imbued with dramatic flair and harmonic interest. The choruses sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silent” (the last verse) with vivid intensity, their full sound in the final “Hallelujahs” slowly ebbing to silence.

The program ended with the Mass for Double Choir, a colorful, youthful work by the Swiss composer Frank Martin, which the choirs performed with a buoyant pulse and energetic finesse. The mood lightened with the encores: two Irish songs, including “Johnny Is the Fairest One,” performed in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

Posted by acapnews at March 17, 2009 10:31 PM

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