Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Chamber choir's jewel perfectly set in Cathedral

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After the musical excess that Mahler's “Symphony of a Thousand” represented on Saturday, the May Festival's Baroque (and a bit of Renaissance) program on Sunday had the effect of cleansing the palate.

        Covington's intimate, sun-dappled Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption was the ideal setting for J.S. Bach and Carissimi, performed by the May Festival Chamber Choir and an accompanying ensemble of period instruments.

        The gem of the program, which included selections by the May Festival Youth Chorus, was Carissimi's oratorio Jephte. In its first May Festival performance, it enchanted the sold-out concert of 950 listeners.

        The Italian composer Carissimi was the greatest master of the Latin oratorio in the middle Baroque period. Jephte, based on the Old Testament story of Jephtah, is his best-known chamber oratorio. May Festival director of choruses Robert Porco led an inspired performance by the chorus with soloists Jane Adler, Steven Rickards, John Aler and John Cheek.

        A backdrop of lute (Rodney Stucky), harpsichord (Heather MacPhail) and organ (Glenn Burdette) set the stage. The most exquisite moment came in the Daughter's final aria, a moving lament sung by Ms. Adler, followed by the closing chorus, with its rich but simple sonorities. Ms. Adler navigated the bel canto lines stylishly, and her smallish soprano was pleasing when unforced. The well-prepared choruses were radiant and precise.

        Adding an authentic touch was the timbre of countertenor Steven Rickards, who made an arresting narrator (Historicus). He performed his recitatives with agility and a remarkably pure, penetrating tone. Tenor John Aler was eloquent as the tragic Jephtah, who promises to sacrifice whomever first comes to his house if God grants him victory in battle and is horrified when he is met by his daughter. John Cheek sang his wide-ranging bass lines elegantly.

        The Chamber Choir opened with Bach's Motet No. 3, “Jesu, Meine Freude,” BWV 227. Beautifully phrased, the chorus' attack was a bit fuzzy at first. But the wonderful fugue at the work's center (“Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich”) was vibrant and well-balanced. The imitative “Gute nacht” was lovely, with the continuo (cellist Daniel Culnan and bassist Matthew Zory Jr.) dou bling the tenors.

        Two violas da gamba and two recorders were added for Bach's Cantata No. 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“God's Time is the Very Best Time”). Mr. Porco kept the choral counterpoint light, and the result was buoyant. Mr. Rickards, Mr. Aler and Mr. Cheek made impressive contributions, and baritone William McGraw (an addition to the program) sang an attractive arioso.

        Opening the concert, the May Festival Youth Chorus displayed poise and discipline in a group by Alessandro Scarlatti, Monteverdi and Palestrina, conducted by James Bagwell.

        Scarlatti's Exultate Deo was a joyous opener in this radiant space. Monteverdi's Ecco mormorar l'onde (“Hear the Murmuring Waters”) challenged, and some of its inner detail was muddy. But Palestrina's seamless polyphony was perfect in this resonant acoustic, and beautifully performed.


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