Opus 7: Mendelssohn, Purcell and Handel

Opus 7’s enticing program of Mendelssohn, Purcell and Handel, while planned months ago, was the perfect antidote to today’s unremittingly bad news, what you might call comfort food for the mind.

Not that it was all familiar. The group’s artistic director, Loren Ponten, chose less commonly performed works by all these composers, including one of eleven anthems written for the future Duke of Chandos by Handel (some phrases of which he clearly borrowed later for “Messiah”). Singing this glorious work, “As pants the hart for cooling streams,” Opus 7 made a truly uplifting and joyful noise with which to end its concert at St James Cathedral Saturday night.

However, not all of the works sung came off so successfully, particularly at the start of the program. Mendelssohn’s early “Kyrie in C Minor” is a gentle piece and the chorus would have sounded less draggy, less tentative if the performance had had more bite. The tempo seemed a tad slow, but had the performance taken off floating, I think this unhurried beat would have worked fine. It didn’t feel a really good choice to begin the program with, despite good work from the soloists, soprano Lisa Cardwell Ponten, mezzo-sorano Kathryn Weld, tenor Howard Fankhauser and bass Charles Robert Stephens. Something more decisive was called for.

Consonants are always hard to hear at St. James, and this night was no exception. The first Purcell work with its evocative chromaticisms, “Remember not, O Lord, our offences,” had similar problems to the “Kyrie,” plus occasional slightly off-note intonation by the sopranos.

The cathedral’s acoustics have a long reverberation time which tends to blur sound. It was hard sometimes to tell whether the singers were not exactly together or it was the way sound reached my aisle seat in the fifth row on the northwest side. I wondered if performers on the right of the chorus and orchestra could always hear performers on the left.

Performances became more satisfactory after this beginning, with the serene “Cor dulce, cor amabile” of Villa-Lobos and Mendelssohn’s dramatic motet “Mitten wir im Leben sind,” plus his gorgeous cantata “Jesu, meine Freude,” clearly influenced by Bach.

From the early Kyrie, written at age 14, to the much more mature “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” written only four years later, (and the above-mentioned cantata which comes from the year after that), it’s fascinating to trace Mendelssohn’s development; the ideas, the influences and the genius which propelled him into his own secure musical place even at such a young age. The “Christe” is a rich tapestry of sound, gorgeous to hear, and Opus 7 gave it a thrilling performance. From my seat the bass orchestral line gave prominence to the important musical grounding of the work, strongly but not obtrusively so, showing its role as anchor for the whole piece.

I would have liked to hear this program somewhere with just a little less reverberation. Having a great admiration for Opus 7 and its quality, I felt this time that the acoustics sabotaged the performance a bit.

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