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Choral and Vocal
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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
St. Cecilia Choir & Cantiamo Sonoma with the Incarnation Orchestra / Friday, April 10, 2009
Conductor: J. Karla Lemon
Soloists: Carol Menke, soprano; Christopher Fritzsche, alto; Kevin Baum, tenor; Tom Hart, bass

GOOD FRIDAY GETS BETTER WITH HAYDN MASS

by Steve Osborn
Friday, April 10, 2009

Franz Joseph Haydn was not quite as prolific with masses as with symphonies, but he did he write 14 of the former nonetheless. For their annual Good Friday concert on April 10, the St. Cecilia Choir joined forces with Cantiamo, the Incarnation Orchestra, four soloists and conductor J. Karla Lemon to perform No. 12, the Theresienmesse, in the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa.

The crowded conditions around the altar were more than reflected in the church itself, where ushers had to squeeze at least seven people into pews that normally hold only five or six. The oversold house only added to the festive atmosphere and to the close connection many in the audience felt to their hometown choirs, soloists and orchestra.

The program notes provided no history of the mass itself, so a little bit may be in order here. Late in his life, Haydn was commissioned to write a series of masses for the annual name’s day celebration of Princess Maria Hermengild, the wife of Haydn’s longtime employer, Nikolaus Esterhazy. Haydn wrote six, including four in B flat major, probably because B flat was the highest note he expected of the sopranos.

The Theresienmesse, one of the four B-flatters, was named for Maria Theresa of the Two Sicilies, the Austrian emperor’s wife. She also happened to be a soprano soloist who sang in Haydn’s oratorios, but it’s unclear if she was the soloist in the original performance of the Theresienmesse in 1799. What is clear is that the soprano part is one of Haydn’s loveliest, filled with ravishing runs and sprightly rhythms.

The same could be said for the other solo parts, and for the choral writing itself, which is every bit the equal of the soloists throughout the mass. The whole mass, in fact, is so joyous and infectious that it’s hard to imagine it inhabiting the same space as a droning sermon.

No sermon was in evidence at this performance, other than an apologetic announcement for the need to squeeze more souls into the pews. The completely packed church resembled steerage on an 18th-century sailing vessel, with the church’s beautiful struts and beams looking for all the world like the ribbing of a ship, and with the traffic noise coming through the open doors and windows serving as the ocean.

The captain of the craft, Maestra Lemon, kept a steady hand on the helm. She is a bilaterally symmetric conductor, given to extending both arms at full length, planting her feet on the ground, and swaying at the waist. Her tempi were brisk but not hurried, her cues precise, her control of dynamics exemplary. Conducting from the floor, without a podium, she had no trouble gaining everyone’s attention, even from choristers whose heads are normally buried in their scores.

Singing against a purple backdrop of a stylized crown of thorns, the combined choirs showed strength in the opening Kyrie and kept getting better. The sopranos and tenors hit their high notes with ease, and the basses and altos offered solid counterpoint.

The soloists — soprano Carol Menke, alto Chris Fritzsche, tenor Kevin Baum and bass Tom Hart — got to shine in the Gloria, particularly in the “Domine Deus” section, where their well-rounded voices blended seamlessly. They filled the church with glorious sound, hampered only by the somewhat muffled acoustics at the upper end.

Lemon propelled the dance-like Credo through its paces, drawing good articulation from the choir and a full dynamic range from the small orchestra. The lilting 6/8 rhythms of the outer sections made for a strong contrast to the quietude of the middle, where the soloists sing of Christ’s crucifixion.

By the time the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei rolled around, the assembled forces had fully gelled and seemed capable of far more than a 45-minute mass. Sadly, encores were not to be, even though the audience kept clapping after the soloists and choir had left the altar. Perhaps the next Good Friday concert could include some appropriate orchestral music in addition to the requisite mass.