CLASSICAL MUSIC / KENNETH HERMAN : Weekend Promises to Be an Oasis in Choral Desert

In spite of sporadic efforts, San Diego is not known as a mecca for choral singing. It remains a far cry from cities such as Minneapolis and Washington, where many professional and semi-professional choral groups complement adventurous church choir programs. This coming weekend, however, promises to be an oasis in the local choral desert.

Saturday night, the touring University of Chicago motet choir visits Clairemont Lutheran Church with a Palestrina “Missa Brevis,’ as well as shorter works by Debussy, Poulenc and Messiaen. Sunday afternoon, the cathedral choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, directed by choirmaster Edgar Billups, sings the Requiem and “Mass for Men’s Voices” by contemporary French composer Maurice Durufle.

The San Diego Master Chorale, the area’s oldest and most dependable choral organization, takes over the downtown First Presbyterian Church Sunday at 8 p.m. to sing Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” and the Faure Requiem. According to Master Chorale director Frank Almond, his group is on a roll after January’s performances with the San Diego Symphony of Beethoven’s Ninth (Choral) Symphony under the dean of American choral conductors, Robert Shaw.

“Shaw was pleased with the group and was eager to return,” said Almond. Almond will reciprocate the compliment and spend some of his upcoming sabbatical at Emory University working under Shaw, whom he characterized as “the most vital 72-year-old musician I’ve ever encountered.”


Almond is preparing his choir for a European tour this July, during which they will perform both the Faure and Mozart works, as well as American folk hymns from the “Sacred Harp” and “Creation,” an early composition by San Diego composer David Ward-Steinman.

“Since we will be singing primarily in Catholic churches, they now require all the repertory to be sacred,” said Almond. Performances in cathedrals in Vienna and Salzburg will be highlights of the summer tour.

The Master Chorale’s programs with the symphony this season have turned out to be a box-office blessing for the San Diego Symphony. After a two-year hiatus that started with the canceled 1986-87 orchestra season, the two musical organizations resumed working relations last December with the cooperation they enjoyed during the heyday of former orchestra music director David Atherton. The only symphony subscription concerts that have sold out thus far this season have been four “Messiah” and Beethoven’s Ninth programs, all joint performances with the Master Chorale. Although the symphony’s 1989-90 season has yet to be announced, we can expect more collaboration between these organizations.

WAITING IN THE WINGS. Tenor Elliot Palay is not eager to get a reputation for indolence, but he is being paid by Los Angeles Music Center Opera to sit around and do nothing. In truth, Palay, a member of the United States International University faculty, is covering for tenor Placido Domingo in Verdi’s “Otello,” which opens later this month.

Whenever Domingo is performing “Otello,” Palay is required to be within 20 minutes of the theater.

“In Los Angeles and New York, that means somewhere inside the building, not across the next freeway. Usually, I sit in the audience and let them know where I am,” explained Palay.

Fortunately for the 40-year-old Heldentenor , his job is not entirely a waiting game. During rehearsals last week and this week, while the company awaits Domingo’s return, Palay has been taking the superstar’s place.

Although Palay has not had much of a vocal career in this country, he sings extensively in Europe. The summer before last, he sang in the Danish National Opera’s “Ring” cycle, and this May he will repeat two of his Wagnerian heroes in Warsaw.


Palay hit pay dirt several years ago while covering for the tenor lead in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” The slated tenor took ill at noon, and Palay made his debut Tristan four hours later.

RETURN OF THE NATIVE. Pianist Gregory Allen returns to Civic Theatre tonight to play a solo recital for the San Diego Community Concert Assn. To be correct, Allen, who was born in Cheyenne, Wyo., cannot be claimed as a San Diego native. He did grow up here, however, and his influential early piano teacher was San Diegan Florence Stephenson. While he went on to win many awards, including the grand prize of the 1980 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition, his first competition laurel was a San Diego Musical Merit Foundation scholarship.

Allen is on the music faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Since 1987, the centennial year of Rubinstein’s birth, Allen has embarked on a project to record all the 20th-Century works written for and dedicated to Rubinstein.