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CLASSICAL MUSIC : Master Chorale Lives Up to Modest Challenge

Rattling the rafters of Civic Theatre proved a modest challenge to the San Diego Master Chorale Sunday evening. Rousing choruses from Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” and a paucity of bodies inside the cavernous theater provided the unbeatable combination for the 120-voice chorus and its orchestra.

In its sole concert of the 1987-88 season, the chorus demonstrated that it has lost neither its discipline nor its pleasantly homogeneous timbre. If the ensemble’s catalogue of emotions and expressive scope were disappointingly monochromatic, these characteristics also stemmed from the rigorous but impassive leadership of its music director, Frank Almond.

Almond assembled an odd program, complementing the Haydn with four liturgical motets by Maurice Durufle, Benjamin Britten’s unaccompanied “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ instrumental tone poem “The Lark Ascending.” The last seemed to be little more than a vehicle for violinist Frank Almond Jr., whom the Master Chorale had already presented in a Civic Theatre recital two months earlier--shades of Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, although Almond fils is far beyond the Wunderkind stage in both years and technical prowess.

Young Almond’s exquisite solo in “The Lark Ascending,” however, gave to the first half of the program a welcome spiritual quality, a much-needed infusion of mystical fervor. Although the texts of the Britten and Durufle bristled with sacred invocations, the master Chorale’s execution of these works remained prosaic and earthbound.

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In Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” the chorale tossed off flippant counterpoint and negotiated harmonic complexities with ease, but it articulated W.H. Auden’s prolix text with only the vaguest precision.

Nor did the chorus unleash any of the “immortal fire” implored in Auden’s constant refrain. The poem was Auden’s birthday offering to Britten, prophetically born on the day set aside for music’s patron saint. It became one the British composer’s earliest choral essays, although it only faintly discloses the powers his later “War Requiem” embodies.

Memorable in the “Lord Nelson Mass” were the contributions of the women soloists and the robust, exuberant choral fugues. Soprano Anna Bjarnson Carlson’s coloratura flights soared gracefully over the full chorus, and contralto Lisa McPhail filled the hall with well-projected, radiant sounds. Their male counterparts, tenor Gerald Whitney and bass Ron Banks, sounded constricted and unsure.

An orchestra drawn mainly from the ranks of the San Diego Symphony completed the Haydn score with reasonably stylish confidence, although some sloppy unisons escaped. Conductor Almond paid little attention to the instrumentalists, while bestowing copious cues to his singers. Perhaps his benign neglect was an unconscious tribute to the musicianship of the former.

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