Mark Gresham | 30 APR 2022
Principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles returned to the podium in Symphony Hall on Thursday night to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a program of top-caliber French works.
The concert opened with Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) with its iconic opening flute solo played by ASO principal flute Christina Smith, followed by his trio of symphonic poems entitled Nocturnes.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is considered the first historical example of French musical Impressionism and the first of musical modernism. Debussy enthusiastically pursued this new creative direction in his composing, which soon produced his Nocturnes (1899) after some less-than-satisfactory trials and diversions. The Prelude set the stage for the Nocturnes, and it would not be unseemly to think of them in that order as a single musical arc.
The Prelude was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, The Afternoon of a Faun, while the three movements of he Nocturnes — “Nuages” (“Clouds”), “Fêtes” (“Festivals”), and “Sirènes” (“Sirens”) – were inspired by an eponymous series of impressionist paintings by American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler which evoked subjects as seen at night, twilight, or in indirect light. As the composer himself wrote, they are not musically formal like Chopin’s “nocturnes” but evoke “all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.”
Runnicles and the ASO gave “Nuages” a pace that allowed the music to breathe, like the unrushed movement of clouds across the sky; their performance of “Fêtes” drew forth a vivid picture of nighttime celebration. “Sirènes” invoked a moonlit sea, with the women of the ASO chorus delivering the haunting, wordless song of the mythological Sirens.
Duruflé’s Requiem, Op. 9 (1947, rev. 1961) is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of choral repertoire, whether performed with one of the two available orchestrations or with organ alone.
Gregorian chants, drawn directly from the Catholic funeral Mass, are the direct source of almost all of Duruflé’s thematic material, wrapped in a lush harmonic texture to forge an outstanding work with a powerful personal signature of the composer. But it is not an over-the-top dramatic piece. It does have its exuberant moments, but few compared with the overtly dramatic Requiems of Verdi and Berlioz. Like Fauré did in his Requiem, Duruflé omits most of the liturgical “Dies Irae,” but sets the “Pie Jesu.”
Before Thursday night, the ASO’s most recent performance of Duruflé’s Requiem was in 2013, likewise with Runnicles at the helm. It’s hard to imagine, but true, that before those concerts, the ASO and Chorus had not performed it in concert since November 1985, led by Robert Shaw, and recording it for a 1987 Telarc release together with the more frequently performed Requiem of Gabriel Fauré.
There are small parts in the Requiem for two solo singers, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone. Shaw, however, chose to have sections of the chorus sing the parts in union instead of using soloists (even though the recording uses soloists in the Fauré). Despite that, it is considered one of the top recordings.
The solos for baritone are in the Offertory (“Domine Jesu Christe”) and the “Libera me,” while the mezzo solo is heard only in the brief “Pie Jesu.”
On Thursday, these were performed ably by baritone Douglas Williams and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. It would have been wonderful to have heard more from them, but they were limited, of course, to singing what Duruflé wrote.
The chorus sang its best during sections given to detail and transparency, such as the contrapuntal “Kyrie” and the “Lux aeterna.” But the opening Introit felt rather vague to me, likewise the final “In paradisum.” Overall, it was a competent and chorally above-average performance. What was sorely missing was a heightened sense of awe. ■
The ASO will repeat this program tonight, April 30, at 8:00 pm at Atlanta Symphony Hall.
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Sir Donald Runnicles: donaldrunnicles.org
- Jennifer Johnson Cano: jenniferjohnsoncano.net
- Douglas Williams: douglasrwilliams.com