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CONCERT REVIEW: Fresno Philharmonic’s Mozart Requiem

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The opening word in Latin stabs like a dagger: “Rex!” the chorus sings. And again, and again: “Rex!”

The lyric in Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor is one of those moments in choral music that cuts to the bone. Though the words of the “Rex tremendae” movement speak of a “King of awesome majesty who freely saves those worthy of salvation,” the moment is not one of happy praise but of desperate submission — of urgent beseeching — from a piteous sinner. There is eternity at stake, and you feel the tension. I imagined the slightest of chills descending upon the Shaghoian Hall as the internal temperature of each audience member notched down a fraction of a degree. The opening phrases of the movement are that cold and beautiful.

The moment was one of my favorites in Friday’s all-Mozart program featuring the Fresno Philharmonic and the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale. With passion and precision, the orchestra and singers in the Requiem — the major work on the program —  delivered an inspiring rendition of the iconic piece. The concert is repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

The chorus, which is under the direction of Anna Hamre, was very well prepared musically, and most of the singers really seemed to connect emotionally with the text. (It’s amazing what a face can communicate while singing, and the cumulative effect of a large number of singers feeling the material can have a profound impact on an audience.) On the podium, Maestro Theodore Kuchar drew upon that emotion from the singers, leading his instrumentalists to scale those same heights.

One terrific aspect of the concert was the balance in the acoustically lauded Shaghoian Hall. The brass never overpowered the singers, and the sound was crisp. The only thing that surprised me was that I didn’t get as much of the full, resonant richness of the vocals as I expected in some parts of the piece. There are moments of the Requiem that should truly envelop you like a bear hug. In the “Dies irae” movement, for example, the chorus did not fill the hall with the supremely confident wall of sound I was craving. (This is a moment for wrath and trembling, after all.) I’m not sure if it was the acoustics or a tentativeness on the part of the singers.

Better handled was the “Sanctus,” another of my favorite moments. The chorus thundered the opening notes with a solid, well-built sound. (If the “Sanctus” were an architectural term it would be a Corinthian column.)

The Philharmonic brought in four professional singers as soloists. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was a blistering highlight, bringing a resounding  passion and vocal heft to the part. Soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy and mezzo-soprano Callista Hoffman were lovely. I was less impressed with tenor Randolph Lacy, whose higher notes were simply lost at times, drowned out by his fellow soloists and orchestra.

The orchestra opened the first half of the program with the Adagio and Fugue for Strings in C minor that followed, which inexplicably to me sounded a little muddled and uninspired in the hall. I was much more taken with a stirring Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, which had a crisp, smooth warmth.

But the highlight, of course, was the Requiem. It’s such a treat to hear a full orchestra and chorus perform this major work in such an intimate setting. When the chorus  launched into the quick-as-a-whip “Osanna” fugue to conclude the “Sanctus,” it made me think of a race. It was a reminder, perhaps, of how quickly life can run by. Which makes it even more important to pause and spend some precious moments in the presence of great music.

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