Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Zinman & Emanuel Ax

Sarah accompanied me to this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, for which I again scored £4 student tickets. The concert, on 19 March, was conducted by David Zinman and featured Emanuel Ax on the piano. [N.B.: David Zinman conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra early in his career — I grew up in the Rochester house he lived in!]

The LPO concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, opened with one of Mozart’s late symphonies: No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”). It’s called the “Prague” symphony because that’s where it was premiered in 1786. The three-movement symphony is a lovely piece — very “Mozartian” and pleasant to listen to, with glimpses of his late-style minor chords and introspection. As the concert opener, the symphony provided a great introduction to David Zinman’s conducting style: he is the subtlest conductor I have ever seen. A small, amiable-looking 77-year-old (!), Zinman conducts with gentle, non-distracting gestures — at one point during the Mozart, he completely stopped conducting, letting the orchestra carry themselves, until he took up the baton again for a cue. I loved watching him smile over to the first violins when cueing them. Such a kind-looking little man — and it was clear from the next two pieces that he and Emanuel Ax have much affection for each other.

Ax made his first appearance for Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. I didn’t know this piece before the concert, but the performance made me want to hear it again. It has typical Straussian harmonic layers and hints of lush Romanticism in many of the piano’s lively passages. Most impressive were Ax’s cadenza and his superb call-and-response dialogues with the timpani and first flute at various points throughout the piece. Ax is fun to watch — we were close enough to see his mouth moving along to the music; during rests he would turn to watch the orchestra, clearly reveling in the wonderful music they were all making.

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

After the interval, Ax returned to the piano for a piece written some 150 years before the Strauss: Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 — one of the major precursors to the modern piano concerto, according to the program notes. Now I love Bach, and this piece was fun as always, but I found the balance to be slightly off — the grand piano, played with what I thought was a bit too much pedal for Bach, often overpowered the small string orchestra. Maybe that’s just because of where we were sitting — in the center of the fifth row — too close, in retrospect. Ax’s technical skill certainly cannot be doubted, and he plays with wonderful feeling.

The final piece brought us back to the late 19th century: Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Op. 24, which was premiered at the same concert as the Burleske we heard in the concert’s first half. I was looking forward to this piece, because I learned when we studied Tristan und Isolde in one of my MA classes that Strauss had in mind the (in)famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s music drama when he was composing Tod und Verklärung. I did recognize glimmers of Wagnerian harmony throughout the piece, which is a vast, sweeping tone poem worth listening to if only for the haunting opening and breathtaking ending, which imparts a feeling of suspension with a bit of longing — the “transfiguration” or “transcendence” of the title, perhaps. Here’s a recording of Zinman conducting the piece with his “home” orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich:

Throughout the concert Zinman — as subtle as ever — drew a magnificent, full sound from the LPO, particularly from the low strings, timpani, and horns. Zinman and Ax’s clear enjoyment of the music made it seem like a cozy evening with friends — and great music, of course.

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