2002 Season • Review
Sacred music wraps up festival with high spirits
July 16, 2002
By Grant Menzies
THIS YEAR’S Oregon Bach Festival began, appropriately enough, with that most towering of any composer’s sacred works, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
It ended much the same way, with sacred music affirming and celebrating the sort of faith (and creative genius) that inspired Bach’s greatest masterpiece: Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1884), and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo for soloists, children’s chorus and orchestra, commissioned for the festival in 1996 and premiered in 1998. For Sunday’s concert, held in the Hult Center’s Silva Hall, the festival orchestra and chorus were joined by soprano Amanda Mace, mezzo sopranos Milagro Vargas and Marietta Simpson, tenor Corby Welch, bass Eric Owens and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by artistic director Helmuth Rilling.
Although the experience was satisfying overall, you might say God decided to spend more time in some details than in others.
Penderecki’s original commission was to comprise the entire Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. What he delivered instead was something smaller yet greater: the Credo itself as an oratorio.
The Credo has served as a linchpin of Christian faith since the 11th century, but it was forged centuries earlier, during competing arguments that Christ was either human or divine, but not both.
The Council of Nicea ruled in 325 that Jesus was “true God and true man,” and the result was that ringing aria of heaven-meets-earth belief, the Nicene Creed.
That Penderecki should single the Credo out for special treatment says as much about the composer’s unerring ear for the greatest possible source of drama as it does about the man’s capacity for intensely powerful faith. In this music, earth mingles with heaven all over again.
Credo’s score bristles with operatic outpourings and hushed prayers, love ballads and battle hymns. This is faith at full tilt, but only three of the five soloists seemed able to share with the choruses and orchestra in expressing it.
Welch’s small but otherwise attractive tenor remained unconvincing and unfocused throughout, his upper range tight and unsteady.
Soprano Mace has a voice outwardly pretty and technically secure, but with an emotional vacancy which gave it a colorless, disembodied quality.
By contrast, Owens and Simpson offered up fully vested energy and lyric sensitivity. But no one projected a more riveting presence than mezzo soprano Milagro Vargas.
Vargas sang at Credo’s premiere, and time has apparently only magnified her infinite variety. Simply put, she was magic.
Vivid lights and inky shadows criss-crossed her face, even when she was silent. When she sang, her radiant, amber voice glimmered like sunlit water, and all her moods, passions, desires and pain flashed reflections across her eyes and ours.
Her “Et incarnatus est (He was made flesh),” candidly caressing and glowingly noble by turns, could wrest a credo from the most hard-bitten skeptic.
Orchestra and choruses occupied that same lofty plane, the former in rich ensemble and forthright solos, the latter in full-throated, beautifully disciplined jubilance.
Rilling’s baton gave his large forces (including a consort of brass tucked high in a balcony) all the articulate grace of a chamber ensemble.
If the Credo forms the foundation of faith’s cathedral, the “Te Deum laudamus (O God, we praise thee)” embodies its spires; and if anyone knew about building sonic cathedrals, it was Anton Bruckner.
But his Te Deum, with which Sunday’s program began, is not content to lean on high phrases praising the Almighty with choirs of apostles, prophets, martyrs and angels. He underscores the prayer’s thanksgiving with propulsive string figurations, waves of annunciatory brass and soaring vocal writing.
Mace, Welch, Simpson and Owens were the Bruckner soloists; again, Simpson and Owens, for all the brevity of their vocal parts, carried more than their share of the music’s dramatic weight and spiritual message. Owens, particularly, put plenty of thrilling fire into his short solo, “Et rege eos (Govern them, and raise them up forever).”
Both orchestra and chorus ended on a strangely ragged note, but for the most part, Rilling shaped them with his habitual elegance.
Grant Menzies is classical music critic for Willamette Week in Portland.
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