By Scott MacClelland
FOLLOWING THE CAMERATA SINGERS performance Sunday of John Rutter’s Requiem, one of the most popular choral works of the last thirty years, I asked Susan Koza, wife of Camerata music director John Koza, how many times they had performed it. “First time,” she told me, adding that only now did the Kozas even come to know the piece. “Imagine, after all our years in choral music.” I was dumbstruck. It was my introduction to Rutter, those three decades ago.
It’s quite an unforgettable piece and, in this performance, was equally moving. Rutter employs popular idioms in his musical style and, in this work, an idiosyncratic choice of texts. As befits a memorial piece, the opening “Requiem aeternam” begins in the minor key, with Norman Peck’s timpani adding an ominous tone, and builds with dramatic tension until, suddenly, the text comes fully into a radiant major with a haunting arpeggiated descending melody that frames the entire work. It’s really a ‘popular’ song, a naïf, that the composer deftly puts through a variety of harmonizations and rhythmic variations.
Rutter’s own original recording used a small orchestra, but Koza opted for the reduced arrangement for flute, oboe, cello, harp, timpani, glockenspiel and organ. The chorus was joined in two movements by solo soprano Maggie Finnegan (right). Rutter had a big presence in this Lenten program with five works in the first half followed by short pieces from Mendelssohn and Abbie Burt Betinis and a longer one by Randall Thompson.
Koza made a point of introducing the gifted young flutist Monica Mendoza, in the second Rutter piece, Musica Dei donum. She is a recent graduate of Youth Music Monterey’s Honors Orchestra and plays with a big, rich tone. Koza also said that Camerata’s Camerata Futures program, that recruits high school students, is in its 17th season and that Finnigan, now in her early 30s, sang among the earliest Futures seasons and at that time was a student at Monterey’s York School. Not familiar with her work, I found some tracks of her singing on her website and was bowled over by her coloratura command of “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Her talent has attracted many excellent mentors, not least the internationally famed Frederica von Stade.
Finnegan debuted this afternoon in Mendelssohn’s “Grant, O Lord, thy grace unbounded,” then sang “Behind the Clouds” to words and music by the American composer Abbie Betinis (just five years Finnegan’s senior.) Finnegan sang the first verse alone, handling its challenging voice-leading with smooth command. In the second verse, the chorus hummed along, in the third with more animated humming and in the final singing out the same words as the soloist. The four verses ended by underscoring hope, peace, joy and love, respectively. Though just four minutes in performance time the piece made a most impressive impact.
Until the Requiem, which at 35 minutes took the entire second half of the concert, the next longest work was Thompson’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” At nine minutes it was very nearly a harp concerto, with harpist Ruthanne Adams playing arpeggios virtually nonstop as if she were substituting for a full orchestra and pretty much sounding like one. In case anyone needed a reminder, the piece demonstrated what a towering figure in American choral music Randall Thompson was.
Getting back to the Requiem, the second movement, Psalm 130, “Out of the depths” opens and is sustained by a highly exposed cello solo, beautifully mastered by Linda Mehrabian, and draws on the American spiritual tradition (perhaps inspired by the spirituals fellow-Brit Michael Tippett inserted into his great oratorio, A Child of Our Time.) Finnegan then took the big solo of “Pie Jesu,” the ‘lullaby’ of the work. The following “Sanctus” was startlingly energetic, with shimmering glockenspiel. Ominous timpani returned to open the complex “Agnus Dei” wherein the chorus sang both the Latin and English versions of the text. Mendoza’s flute became a major presence about halfway through introducing Christ’s promise of eternal life.
Oboist Peter Lemberg gave a pastoral tone to the ensuing Psalm 23, in a slightly different translation from the one used by Thompson.
Finnegan then returned to open the final “Lux aeterna” before the chorus took up those actual words. Finally, the lines that opened the Requiem returned, along with the melody that gives this work its ultimate message of naïve joy.
Organist Tiffany Truett Bedner carried a major responsibility throughout the program, providing a crucial ‘orchestral’ foundation. Kudos to Koza and his chorus for their attention to dynamics, pacing and balances. And special cheers to the nine Camerata Futures teens from Salinas High. If Lent is for personal circumspection then this concert certainly turned around the heads of any Christian laggards.