The space is the thing

By Peter Burwasser

Virtually all live music events contain some element of theater. I’m not talking about opera, which is a theatrical sub-genre unto itself. Even something as pure as a solo piano recital invariably unfolds with some sort of drama, beginning with the manner in which the pianist walks onto the stage and seats herself.

Then there are such elements as facial expressions, hand positions, or— famously in the case of such past masters as Glenn Gould and Rudolf Serkin— obbligato humming and grunting. It’s the wonderful human element, and a kind of magic, that separates the live music experience from passively listening to recordings.

The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia presented a program of large-scale works that were rendered theatrical by means both extra-musical and by the composers’ pens. The most obvious factor was the venue itself, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, one of Philadelphia’s most grandiose interior spaces.

It’s also a notoriously difficult acoustical environment for music. Sound goes straight up, bounces around the lovely vaulted ceiling, then falls back down to the pews, in some manner of resemblance to the music that previously left the cellos, clarinets and singers that produced it. The actual reverb has been measured as seven seconds.

A site-specific work

Composer Robert Moran made these conditions a part of his musical vision, especially in the case of his own Angele Dei, which received a world premiere. In this space, the instruments’ tonalities are altered as if processed through a computer, although the voices and the Basilica’s magnificent pipe organ were less affected. Choruses were placed at either side of the front of the altar, and each had its own conductor, cued by music director Alan Harler.

The music proceeded in a dreamlike manner, without much of a cohesive structure, as if Moran was mesmerized by the effects of the mutated sounds. It came across as a kind of aural experiment, but a fully engrossing one at that. Angele Dei is a site-specific work that can only be performed in a venue that offers the Basilica’s acoustical qualities.

Tribute to 9/11

Moran’s Trinity Requiem is a more conventional conception, at least in terms of musical vocabulary and form, consisting of sections of the Latin mass, with the singers alternating between the original Latin and the English translations. It’s a heartfelt and moving tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and was premiered in 2011 at Trinity Wall Street Church, mere blocks from the site of the tragedy.

This version featured an augmented choir, including the wonderful Philadelphia Boys Choir, whose singers were placed in the organ loft at the rear of the sanctuary, creating a haunting surround sound effect. In a theatrical gesture, the entire Boys’ Choir marched down the center aisle at the end of the piece, singing, ”In paradisium deducant te Angeli” (may angels lead you into paradise) before joining the rest of the players for the finale full center.

Sound of his own voice

The Moran works book-ended Anton Bruckner’s 1869 Mass in E minor. In one last theatrical gesture, the music proceeded without pause from Moran’s Angele Dei, via an exuberant organ improvisation by the excellent Alexander Hermann.

Bruckner’s Mass is gorgeous, filled with exotic harmonies and exquisite polyphony in the choir writing, but, like the golden throated orator, Bruckner enjoyed the sound of his own voice a bit too much, with half again as much material as is really needed to be effective.

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