The Master Chorale of Orange County's "Soiree Francaise"--given twice Sunday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach--proved a busy program. The chorale itself, however, was often idle as a potpourri of variable quality and pertinence preceded the main event of the evening, Maurice Durufle's Requiem.
The program was dedicated to Durufle, the French organist/composer who died last year. The occasion was dignified, and musical attention diverted, by the introduction of the French cultural attache and an uninformative bilingual tribute by Nancy Hoy.
In the 40 years since its completion, Durufle's utterly characteristic Requiem has become a popular choral staple. Under Maurice Allard's direction, it emerged Sunday evening with fresh eloquence. Allard elicited well-blended, focused singing from 162 voices in a reading of controlled serenity.
Frederick Swann, organist at the Crystal Cathedral and a noted Durufle disciple, made effective use of the large electrical-action Casavant instrument at St. Andrew's. Baritone Michael Lancaster stepped forward from the chorale for a pair of plangent solos, and mezzo Carla Wood sang the "Pie Jesu" with big, rich sounds modulated by a wide, slow vibrato.
Swann and the chorale also collaborated powerfully in the Kyrie from Vierne's "Messe Solennelle," while tenor Dale Tracey's fervent "O mon ame" from Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ" was blandly supported by the group. One-hundred sixty-two voices in the resonant St. Andrew's acoustic compromised the clarity vital to Debussy's "Trois Chansons," overwhelming soprano Laura Fries' dark "Quant j'ai ouy le tabourin" solo.
Allard reduced his choir to 33 for a set of Renaissance and Hindemith chansons. The popular favorites benefited from an odd sort of buoyant sincerity, though in hardly a purist's ideal performance.
Swann began the proceedings with a long, orotund "Paraphrase Carillon" by Tournemire, one of Durufle's early teachers. Soprano Marianne Rethwisch and tenor Steve Dunham added a pleasant, albeit largely faceless, account of Faure's "Pleurs d'Or."