Rich requiems make for special eveningREVIEW: The Arrowhead Chorale offered back-to-back compositions based on the church liturgical text known as requiem.
By: Samuel Black, for the News Tribune
Friday night, halfway through the Christian Lenten weeks, was filled with reflection and anticipation of the renewal always coming. The Arrowhead Chorale, under the direction of Stanley Wold, offered back-to-back compositions based on the church liturgical text known as requiem — in English, a thorough sense of the peaceful rest once death has occurred.
The setting was First Lutheran Church in Duluth, home of the Jaeckel pipe organ, Op. 52, delightfully played by Velda Bell, with a modest, varied group of instrumentalists sharing in this intimate musical experience.
In 1985, exuberant, prolific, Anglican composer John Rutter set parts of the traditional Latin requiem text, also adding a couple of Psalms to broaden the message. A very dark, brooding opening, coming from cellist Betsy Husby, leads into a typically memorable melody, in the true Rutter style: a little bit of Elizabethan, a little bit of Broadway. A very powerful choral setting of the biblical Psalm 130 — a strong statement of lament and redemption — shared the richness of the Chorale sound, with a quick return to the captivating opening melody.
Soprano Alice Pierce added her soaring lightness to the Pie Jesu section, with a very soft, very high conclusion. Then the Sanctus exploded with glockenspiel, organ and enthusiastic singing, celebrating the holiness of the divine encounter. Rutter adds a mock-speaking section for the choir to remind us that mortality will be present. But the Christian consolation of resurrection and companionship hold the upper hand in the music that follows.
A lovely, pastoral setting of Psalm 23, with Laurie Brunt’s oboe floating across the ceiling, is followed by an exquisite sense of completeness, with the Lux aeterna, the eternal light of God, shining upon those who have departed this life.
At this point, Deb Holman from CHUM read the names of a few dozen people, mostly homeless, who had died here in Duluth within the past 14 months. It made the Requiem Mass seem very appropriate, indeed.
French master organist Maurice Durufle premiered his Requiem (Op. 9) in 1947. Since Durufle was a prominent French Roman Catholic, his requiem is based on the Gregorian chant melodies most closely connected to these texts. As Wold explained, nearly every measure of this music has the chant theme expressed, either by the singers or by one member of the orchestral ensemble.
I have my own biases, but this is one of the most beautiful choral compositions in the world. The organ (Jaeckel, Op. 52) is wonderful for this piece. A particular reed pipe, a full-bodied regal tone, shone gloriously in the Offertorium section of the requiem. Sarah Knott, mezzo-soprano, sang the Pie Jesu section, although her high notes were much more solid than the lower parts of the melody. The organ is much more prominent throughout, and Bell obviously was enjoying the lyricism of the melodies and the choices of pipes offered for this performance.
With two trumpets in the ensemble, the exciting explosion in the Sanctus was truly welcome. In the space of First Lutheran, the softer sounds get swallowed into the height of the room, while the fortissimo moments are beautifully golden.
The moment of choral bliss came during the Lux Aeterna, as the combination of sustained chords are embellished by gently rolling melodies from the chant. Be prepared, settle in and allow this music to flow over you like northern light patterns.
The Chorale seemed much stronger on the Durufle, and some of the rhythmic dynamism of the Rutter was elusive. All the same, to have such rich selections from 20th century choral repertoire made for a very special evening. The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday for those who admire the positive choral celebration of requiem.
Samuel Black is a Duluth choral director and organist who enjoys being in the audience, then sharing his thoughts with the Duluth News Tribune.