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[whitespace] The OK Chorale

Classical vocal group rides into the sunset with a strong season-closing program

By Scott MacClelland

The fine execution of a tasty program at the end of a concert season certainly goes a long way toward erasing past disappointments, cleansing the aural palate and restoring expectations for the future. Case in point: Paul Vorwerk's Santa Cruz Chorale program Sunday at Holy Cross, the church this town was named for.

Unlike the other California mission churches and their stone walls, Holy Crossís wooden structure--an inauthentic replacement for the original--resonates sound with welcome warmth and clarity. (When the sunshine pours through its stained glass, we may forgive its 19th century Protestant architecture and gladly embrace its restored Protestant tracker organ, even if the combination holy water basin/spa inside the entrance seems oddly conceived. Or is this a cool new-style baptistry?)

Happily Vorwerk imparts an instinctive sense of programming and proportion. The names of GF Handel and JS Bach were his bait. As it turned out, however, the choral works of those two big names must be considered obscure. The opening organ concerto by Handel, a well-known and popular piece, however, made everyone instantly comfortable. Indeed, pitting a small positive organ against a string quintet, plus oboes, proved the ideal balance for it. The miniature sonic image was enchanting.

The Chorale made its first appearance in the balcony, behind the audience, singing Allegriís famous Miserere. Legends cling to this 16th century-style piece composed in the 17th century, due no doubt to its unique history, but not less to its haunting ìrefrain.î (For well more than a century, the papacy held it under tight security, preferring to restrict its use to Vatican precincts. Mozart, upon hearing it sung in the Sistine Chapel, is supposed to have repaired to his hotel room to write it down from memory, which, frankly, is no big deal. Even amateur musicians could have readily memorized it from its numerous repetitions.)

The workís highlight is a soprano solo that soars over the chorus in a high, arcing melisma that Lou Harrison would describe as the audienceís ìtake home pay.î The phrase introduced soprano Susan Judy, one of four soloists who would appear subsequently in the program.

At its conclusion, the chorus made its way from the balcony to the front of the church, accompanied the entire way by audience applause. The sense of gratitude for this community resource was palpable and enthusiastic.

With the instrumentalists reassembled, Vorwerk then led Let God arise, one of several anthems Handel composed while in the employ of the Duke of Chandos. (In the period, the word ìanthemî is interchangeable with the word ìcantata.î) This particular work is endowed with many riches, including a fine symphony (overture), a stunning opening chorus enhanced by chatterings on oboe which are picked up by the singers, and solo arias. Tenor Daniel Plaster made a fine presentation in the crafty ìSmokeî aria, then transformed himself into an alto for a duet with bass Kenneth Knight. Judy reintroduced her clarion soprano and mezzo-soprano Suzanne Elder-Wallace completed a vocal quartet that prefaces the chorus At thy rebuke.

In the second half, the short program served up the Missa Brevis in G by JS. Bach, a splendid display work which is completely obscured by the mighty Mass in B Minor. Indeed, Bach wrote at least two other ìshort masses,î confined, as they are, to the Kyrie and Gloria.

Like the Handel, the Bach parades choruses, solos and a duet, and avails the same small instrumental ensemble of strings, oboes and positive organ. The opening Kyrie is a sprawling choral fugue, darkened and spiced by chromatic melodic lines. A slow walking bass, articulated by contrabassist Kristin Zoernig, accompanied the chorus in the first movement of the Gloria. Then bass Kenneth Knight put on an astonishing display in the aria Gratias agimus tibi, as difficult a vocal solo as Bach ever wrote, especially in the tortured voice-leading of the B section. Judy and Elder-Wallace sweetened their duet on Domine Deus, and tenor/alto Plaster met the demands of the aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus. With the soloists back among the choristers, the choral finale anchored an impressive presentation, even though the basses lost their focus for a moment. Instrumentalists prominent for their parts were violinist Sue Brown, oboist Shelly Phillips and Edward Murray at the organ.

Features of the just-announced 2000-2001 season, beginning in November, include an all-Vespers program, Iberian cathedral music of the 16th and 17th centuries, and Beethoven's Mass in C.

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From the June 21-28, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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