Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Centenary Festival Choir & Orchestra

Stanley M. Baker conducting
June 28, Centenary United Methodist Church, Richmond

Where does Renaissance music end and baroque music begin? The normally cited date is 1600; but a lot of 17th-century music (and some from the 18th century) retains the old dance forms and strophic-song structure, as well as using the instruments, at play in the Renaissance. That stylistic hybrid quality resonated through the 22nd annual installment of Centenary Classics, Richmond’s summer showcase of baroque choral and instrumental music.

These concerts focus on a single composer or school of composition. This year, it was Franz Biber (1644-1704), the Bohemian best-known as a violin virtuoso (one of the first to emerge north of Italy), heard in his less-familiar role as a composer of church music in the service of the archbishop of Salzburg. Stanley M. Baker led a chamber chorus and orchestra of period strings and brass in three of Biber’s Psalm settings and a larger ensemble of two dozen voices in Biber’s "Missa Sancti Henrici."

Alongside Biber’s liturgical works, the instrumental ensemble played pieces by the Austrian Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-80) and the Bohemians Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) and Pavel Josef Vejvanovský (c. 1630-93).

The Biber Mass, introduced in 1697 at the investiture of his daughter as a nun, is for the most part a straightforward setting of Catholic liturgy. Its most striking sections are celebratory, as in the Gloria, and the Credo's recounting of the Passion of Christ, garnished with representational or evocative effects. Baker’s chorus, drawn from the choir of Centenary United Methodist Church with some guest singers, projected the generally upbeat tone of the piece, with fine solo contributions from soprano Brittany Davis and bass John C. Ford Jr.

Diction, however, was rather muddy, both in the Mass and in Biber’s settings of "Dixit Dominus" (Psalm 110), "Laudate, pueri, Dominum" (Psalm 113) and "Laetatus sum" (Psalm 122).

The instrumental ensemble, led by violinist Daniel Boothe, was at its most sonorous and expressive in Schmelzer’s "Musical Swordfight," a crossbreeding of the representational "battle music" popular in the 17th century and the dance suite that would evolve in the hands of later composers such as Bach and Telemann. Framing the Schmelzer were the brief ceremonial sonata from Kuhnau’s cantata "Wenn ihr fröhlich seid an euren Festen" ("On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts") and Vejvanovský’s Sonata à 10, showing off the ensemble’s early trumpets and sackbuts (antique trombones) to excellent effect.