Saturday, May 22, 1999

Tribute to Shaw sublime memorial

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The May Festival Chorus' tribute to Robert Shaw was not a memorial, conductor Robert Porco told Music Hall's audience Friday night. It was, rather, “a thank you for all that he's done.”

        Considered by many to be the most influential choral conductor of our time, Mr. Shaw died in January.

        The choral giant had guest-conducted the May Festival 13 times since 1965. Friday's concert, which he was to have conducted, proved to be a moving tribute. Mr. Porco, who was a close friend and colleague of Mr. Shaw, refashioned the original program to include works for which Mr. Shaw was best known. The result was both deeply personal and, in many ways, a rare treat.

        The most sublime moment came in a group of spirituals sung a cappella by the May Festival Chorus and led by Mr. Porco, who is in his 10th season as director of choruses. They showed Mr. Shaw's lesser-known side, that of someone who enjoyed smaller songs rather than the great oratorios for which he was most known.

        The spirituals, in arrangements made by Mr. Shaw, Alice Parker and William Levi Dawson, were often performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale, which Mr. Shaw founded in the late '40s. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Moanin' Dove,” with its echo effects, hypnotic drones and modern harmonies — was tinged with melancholy and beautifully sung.

        “I Got Shoes” was a spirited contrast, and the chorus captured a memorable lightness in Music Hall's excellent acoustics.

        Mr. Porco, who led these works animatedly, captured a dark, poignant tone in “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and then treated the audience of 2,536 to a hushed, swaying “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for an encore.

        Mr. Porco retained two larger works that Mr. Shaw had planned in the program. In the first half, the conductor captured only some of the sparkling Gallic wit of Francis Poulenc's Gloria, although the attack in both chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was clear and crisp.

        The work's high point was the second movement “Laudamus Te,” a joyous, jazzy dialogue between chorus and orchestra. Domique Labelle, a soprano with a rich, luminous voice, was an engaging soloist, whose voice soared powerfully and was true even in difficult, high passages.

        Mr. Shaw won his 15th Grammy three weeks after he died for his Telarc recording of Samuel Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard, which figured in the second half. A cantata that uses romantic, modern and ancient sounds, it opened with the men evoking Gregorian chant, and built to several dramatic climaxes for full chorus and orchestra.

        Mr. Porco led his forces magnificently, eliciting rich choral textures and balancing the orchestra and chorus expertly.

        As the music increased in intensity, a fine trio of soloists made brief contributions: Ms. Labelle, Lauren McNeese, mezzo-soprano, and Mark Panuccio, tenor.

        The program opened with a bright “Awake the Harp” from Haydn's The Creation, which had a vibrant sound, and crisp articulation of the text, both hallmarks of this concert. (Incidentally, the program showed a somewhat different text than that sung.)

        Ms. Labelle displayed a controlled coloratura and lovely expression in selections from Handel's Messiah, a work that Mr. Porco estimated was conducted by Mr. Shaw 600-700 times.

        The chorus also shone in “Lift Thine Eyes” (sung by the women), and “He, Watching Over Israel” from Mendelssohn's Elijah, which featured gorgeous choral textures.


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