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Over Guiding Light: Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Feb. 28 at Goucher College

March 3, 2010
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| Image by Robbie Whelan

There are heaps of nice things to say about the Baltimore Choral Arts Society’s Feb. 28 program at Goucher College. The program—Franz Schubert’s Mass in G Major and Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna—included two highly beautiful pieces of music that made an interesting counterpoint to one another: one a tidy, symmetrical work of the high classical period, performed with enough focus to bring out its graceful and firm sense of melody; the other a freer, more visceral work of contemporary tonal composition that appealed to the a sense of wonder and awe. And the choir and orchestra were both in top form as always: incredibly responsive to music director Tom Hall’s emphatic and emotional conducting, with talented, songbird soloists on the first piece and a moving, dynamic relationship between instruments and voices on the second.

Lux Aeterna is one of those pieces that could—and ought—to be used to reach out to newer, younger audiences. It’s exciting. It’s beautiful on a very basic level. In the fourth movement, everything stops to let a spindly cello solo be the sole accompaniment to a delicate, sotto voce choral section, and suddenly your mind is filled with a range of cinematic images—such as looking at the late afternoon sun through a spider web in a birch-wood forest on a cloudy, winter day—and then returns with a fuller, more emphatic set of chords from the orchestra, buffeted by the choir’s throaty, forte harmony. Disappointingly, the average age of the audience appeared to bottom out in the mid-40s.

But there were precious few problems with this program. The Schubert—as Hall explained—was not meant to be performed with 105 voices and 30-plus orchestral instruments, and was thus a little heavy-handed in its dynamic changes, but hey, it was very dramatic that way. Leah Shaw, the soprano soloist for the Schubert, sang at times timidly, and the brass section on Lux Aeterna at times played too much in the shadow of the strings. But other than that, a very touching offering of music for a Sunday afternoon.

Aside from the music presented, there was one major problem with this program—music director Hall’s insistence on telling the audience what he thinks each piece is about, and what he thinks the audience ought to take away from it. Hall’s a friendly, verbose guy—understandably so, as he speaks, in his warm leathery radio voice most mornings as culture editor of WYPR’s Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast—who likes to talk directly to his audience. He seems to be of the Marin Alsop school of classical music presentation—spend 10 minutes talking to the crowd as a way of “reaching out” and “making the music accessible.”

“[This piece] is 30 minutes of creating the conditions under which one can contemplate . . . and meditate on the notion of light,” Hall said before diving into the Lux Aeterna. “Eternal light.”

He then proceeded to tell an obnoxious story that began with a chat he had with some Harvard psychiatrists, name-checked composer David Zinman, author Barbara Erenreich, and repeatedly referred to the composer of Lux Aeterna as a “buddy” and called him by the annoyingly familiar, “Skip” Lauridsen. Hall ended by saying that the “light” in the piece is the same “light” that drove hordes of volunteers to Haiti after the earthquake, and more recently, to Chile, to help out.

Thing is, Lux Aeterna doesn’t need some watered-down interpretation via a tragic current event to make sense. It totally stands on its own as a phenomenally moving work of art. The phrasing of Lauridsen’s composition moves with the same sort of loose, rhythmic gait of much pre-Western folk music, and its melodies probe traditional modes and wide, dramatic intervals that create weary, gorgeous melodies. But Lauridsen’s genius, really, is in the way he layers, repeats, and permutes his melodic figures, one on top of another, to create a sense of refraction and continuance. His “light” is not “eternal” because it is some sort of hopeful, triumphant reference to the religious notion of eternal light. The optimism of Lux Aeterna is a careworn optimism—the kind that comes from reminding people that they are subject to some sort of eternal power, rather than the beneficiary of it.