Doin’ It Better and Better: University of Maryland Summer Chorus, July 18, 2009
Tucked inconspicuously away in the DMV’s Concert Dead Zone of mid-July through August, the University of Maryland Summer Chorus concert on Saturday night at the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center nonetheless served a number of purposes. The orchestra and soloists, mostly composed of students and recent grads, used the concert as what my workplace would term a “developmental assignment.” The chorus, composed of enthusiasts from the campus community and beyond, wanted to conclude three intense weeks of rehearsals with some bonafide singing. The audience came to support someone on stage or (in my case) divert itself without paying any money to do so. Missions accomplished!
I have been going to University of Maryland concerts with pickup student orchestras for a long time — I even participated in one, with the late/lamented UM Chorus — and the students always sound awful for the first five minutes of the concert before taking an additional minute to transition into sounding like they have played together all their lives. It is a constant and inspiring miracle, doubtless abetted in this case by Terp choral conductor Timothy Reno. Here, the strings and continuo made a joyless morass of the orchestral music that opens Henry Purcell’s first Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day before suddenly arighting themselves in the first aria, “Welcome to all the pleasures.” (Cellist Elizaeth Meszaros didn’t need the live warmup; she had taken the stage a half-hour before the concert and played her continuo line over and over again, and she was right on point every time, even when exposed in support of solo arias. Got-r-done!)
This Ode calls for two sopranos and a chorus but barely uses them, meaning most of the work fell to countertenor Christopher Newcomer, tenor David Travis, and bass Aram Mann. Newcomer fared the best, giving especially sweet voice to “Here the Deities approve” while pronouncing clearly enough that the lack of a text in the program was slightly less annoying than it usually is. The Dekelboum Concert Hall occasionally swallowed up his voice, but then it’ll do that. Travis and Mann had pitch and timing problems that made their contributions less well-developed.
Mozart’s “Exultate, jubilate,” next on the program, showcased one of the sopranos, Katelyn Aungst. Here, it was fun to watch this particular youngster improve dramatically from moment to moment, befitting her status as an undergraduate music education major with a concentration in voice. In the first aria, Aungst sang mostly into her book and swallowed the ends of lines, but she became visibly more engaged in the following recitative, moving her shoulders and even smiling a bit as the text (again, not printed in the program; boooo) started jumping out into the hall. This allowed us to hear her lovely voice, sweet and round yet not lacking agility; this last quality happily informed the “Alleluia” that closes this piece, which she made into a vivacious tour de force.
After intermission, Mozart’s Coronation Mass provided the long-awaited opportunity for the choristers and Reno to show the results of three weeks of nearly-every-day rehearsal. They apparently made the most of their time, because the chorus’ sound rang out clean and jubilant, yet with Mozartean grace in the phrasing. The forte-piano accents in the opening “Kyrie eleison” had appropriate drama, the “Credo” sounded fortified with belief, and Mozart’s jokey insertions of “Osanna in excelsis” into the Benedictus were even funnier when they were so immodestly robust.
The chorus’ fine diction helped one hear that this performance was sung with the Latin pronunciations prevalent in Mozart’s Vienna, which apparently involve taking every vaguely Italianate sound and converting it to German. For example, the “pa-chem” in “Dona nobis pacem” became “pa-tsem,” as if the C were a German S. Not earth-shattering, but neat to hear.
Soprano Courtney Ruckman and mezzo Joanna Rostowsky joined Travis and Mann to form the solo quartet; here, Ruckman stood out, with a voice slightly less plush than Aungst’s but used with much more assurance (befitting her additional experience, having graduated already); she projected her piano moments so they didn’t get lost in the hall and expertly balanced the melodic line in what little solo material she had.
So, in the end, everyone got what they wanted from this concert: The youngsters got some additional experience under their belts, the enthusiasts sounded both enthusiastic and polished, and I got to hear them for free, making for an evening more fun than (say) watching the Nats lose to the Cubs again.