Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The St. Charles Singers Continue "The Mozart Journey"

There simply aren't many concerts of young W.A. Mozart's early sacred choral works. It's not because the music isn't beautiful or important (it is). Perhaps it's because only a choir with the depth and quality of the St. Charles Singers could develop this lesser known repertoire into a multi-season program that may very well be unique in the world.

Performances of October 15 and 16, 2016 were the eleventh in a series of seventeen concerts entitled "The Mozart Journey: Mannheim and Beyond," whose goal is to present the complete known collection of Mozart's sacred choral compositions. Such a project may never have been undertaken before.

Seats were scarce in St. Mary's Church in Elgin on Sunday afternoon, even for the 28-piece Metropolis Chamber Orchestra of Chicago, which was spread across the transept, two rows deep and twelve rows wide. The choir occupied the remaining area in front of the chancel and the vocal soloists sang from the first row of pews.

But every seat in the church became the perfect seat once the music started. St. Mary's sounded like a cathedral and the ensemble seemed to double in volume under the lofty ceilings. It's a resounding yet forgiving space that favors intonation at the cost of some fine details, but the exquisite experience of this music was worth it.

Photo courtesy St. Charles Singers.

The program consisted of the obscure Kyrie in E flat K 322 (1778), the nine-part Litaniae de venerabili altaris Sacramento K 243 (1776), and the seven-movement Missa Solemnis in C K 337 (1780), all written while Mozart was in his early twenties, before he moved to Vienna. The orchestra was showcased in Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1759) by Joseph Haydn, Mozart's contemporary, idol and friend.

Perhaps less familiar to Elgin audiences, the 32-voice St. Charles Singers are a professional choir made up of accomplished career musicians. And their skill was evident in graceful control over dynamic contrasts and counterpoint that needed no prompting. Each tightly synchronized section shaped their phrases to the same arc and length, and the choir's tone was gorgeously blended over long vowels — although without overenunciating, the all-Latin text was hard to follow at times.

The orchestra was attentive and entirely on point throughout, never outsung by the choir except in a few passages through opposite registers. Subtler details like violin pizzicato were more felt than heard in the volume of sound, and the more transparent moments of orchestration made us want to hear more from the portative organ and flute. 

Two solo voices bright enough to outshine the chorale belonged to outstanding sopranos Meredith Du Bon and Jennifer Gingrich, whose expressive range boasted precise entrances, regal fortes, and courageous flights of operatic coloratura dipping below the staff.

The preparation of this ensemble spoke for itself and was a credit to unassuming Maestro Jeffrey Hunt, founder and Music Director of the St. Charles Singers. His tempos were reverent, and his baton was free of all conceit as he ushered choir and orchestra through 75 minutes of music with concise cues and poetic timing.

If this performance was any measure, we think the St. Charles Singers have a sound much larger than any chamber, and a talent much bigger than their name. Listen for yourself at their upcoming "Candlelight Carols" concerts, December 2-4, 2016.  Learn more at www.stcharlessingers.com.