AUBURN — The Masterworks Chorale took advantage of the second Sunday of Lent to present a set of contemplative pieces during its annual winter concert at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn.
The late afternoon sun still shone purple, red, blue and green through the church’s stained glass when the concert began, contrasting with the performers’ black formal wear as they stood before the altar.
The chorale was joined by Symphony Syracuse in the centerpiece performance, “Requiem in D minor” by French composer Gabriel Faure.
Daniel Larson, the chorale’s musical director, wrote in the program notes that Faure’s “Requiem” is characterized by its clearness and simplicity.
“It’s unique in all of chorale literature in that it’s not big and bombastic like Verdi,” he said. “It’s something we’ve looked forward to for a long time.”
The piece began with heavy cellos laying down a funereal base that brightened, subtly but perceptibly, through the seven movements. The music never quite crested, but reached a measured, ethereal plateau in a solo by soprano Diane deRoos.
The horns conspired with the bass cellos but the airier violins and violas managed to overcome both, lending the piece its characteristic gentle tone.
“Requiem” came after intermission; it was preceded by “Cantique de Jean Racine,” also by Faure, and Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb.”
The “Cantique,” a short piece, was understated with layered flats and sharps from the chorus and rolling arpeggios from Lori Rhodes-Pettit’s piano accompaniment.
It was Britten’s manic cantata, however, that seemed to interest the audience the most.
The words to “Rejoice in the Lamb” came from 18th century English writer Christopher Smart, who wrote them while committed in an insane asylum. Britten, a 20th century English composer with a modern bent, put them to music.
It constitutes a kind of Biblical bestiary: Balaam and a donkey, Ithamar and a camel, Daniel and a lion, David and a bear.
“For I will consider my cat Jeoffry,” deRoos sang dutifully, “for he is the servant of the living God.”
The music evolved from a sort of chant in the beginning to a manic recitation done almost in round. Rhodes-Pettit jostled along like a wheelbarrow full of glass on railroad tracks – never following the singers, but not exactly leading them.
The chorus built like an undertow then dropped, almost monastic. It was positively impossible to hum.
“We don’t hear it often because it’s riotously difficult to do,” Larson said. “The meter changes are incredible and the words almost become tongue-twisters.”
For example, in Smart’s lyrics: “For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like; for the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.”
Penelope Rowlands was up from New Jersey visiting a friend who sings in the chorale. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the Britten performance.
“I thought, ’Oh, it’s English, they can’t write music, this will be terrible,’ but it was wonderful,” she said. “I thought the piece and the lyrics were incredibly interesting.”
The chorale’s next performance will be May 20 at the Springside Inn for a five-course dinner.
Staff writer Justin Murphy can be reached at 282-2237 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenMurphy.