Haydn and Mozart at Full Throttle

By Daniel Koontz
Cherry Duke, a mezzo-soprano soloist in the Choral Society of the Hamptons’ concert on Saturday, engaged in a call and response with the oboist Terry Keevil, suggesting birds and all of nature joining in praising God. Morgan McGivern

    The Choral Society of the Hamptons celebrated the 65th anniversary of its summer concert series on Saturday together with the Greenwich Village Singers and four soloists, to the accompaniment of the South Fork Chamber Orchestra.  Mark Mangini, the conductor, continued the society’s tradition of presenting important choral repertory in the summer concert, leading the ensemble in Haydn’s “Te Deum” and Mozart’s monumental Grand Mass in C minor.
    The parish hall of Most Holy Trinity Church in East Hampton was the setting. With its large dimensions and ringing acoustics, it proved a good fit for the big sound of the combined choruses.
    The “Te Deum,” a setting of the ancient hymn of celebration, is a nonstop burst of energy. It begins with an arresting unison line, which, in its use of the pentatonic, sounds almost folk-derived, although it could also allude to plainchant. Either way it certainly wakes you up. With other unison lines, this melodic figure appears in several places throughout the work, and the strong voices of the Choral Society gave these passages the proper strength and confidence. The more subdued middle section of the work displayed a nice richness of tone at softer dynamics, and the closing fugue was well defined and lively.
    For all of its polish, though, the Haydn was in this case more of a warmup for the main event, the Grand Mass in C minor. This is one of Mozart’s late masterpieces, but it exists only in fragmentary form. Some sections survive intact, some were re-created from existing material, and some are lost forever.   While fragmentary works are often relegated to footnotes in music history books, this one is among Mozart’s most performed, and it clearly displays the personal, hybrid character of his late choral style. 
    By the time Mozart composed the Grand Mass, the music of J.S. Bach and other late-Baroque masters was highly unfashionable, and the contrapuntal procedures their music followed, such as canon and fugue, were considered dry and artificial. Additionally, the newer preference for symmetrical phrasing and distinctive themes directly opposed the fortspinnung (spinning out) so highly prized by Bach’s generation. 
    In this mass, however, Mozart produces a startling synthesis between these seeming opposites. This becomes immediately apparent in the Kyrie, where he takes a compelling theme and subjects it to a fugal treatment. What results is the remarkable experience of a classical tunefulness melded with a baroque fortspinnung. Having accomplished this, Mozart proceeds to a solo Christe Eleison in the operatic idiom of his day, somehow managing a smooth transition between the two. 
    Mozart’s compositional challenge is joined by the challenge of performing his intricate counterpoint, and the singers here certainly met the demands of the music without a hitch. The soprano soloist Darynn Zimmer delivered the virtuoso turns of the Christe Eleison with effortless grace.
    The Gloria follows the Baroque custom of breaking up the text into smaller parts, the better to reflect the meaning and mood of each line. Of special note was the mezzo-soprano soloist Cherry Duke’s call and response with the oboist Terry Keevil in the Laudamus Te, in which Mozart seems to be suggesting birds and all of nature joining in praising God. The Qui Tollis, with its fiendishly difficult chromaticism, highlighted the skill and preparation of the chorus, while the Quoniam Tu Solus allowed us to hear Misha Bouvier’s rich baritone set against the two female soloists.
    As one of the incomplete portions of the Mass, the galloping Credo ends with the heavily ornamented aria Et Incarnatus Est, sung beautifully by Ms. Zimmer with the trio of flute, oboe, and bassoon. The Sanctus brought the chorus back in full voice, although the tricky runs and counterpoint of the closing Hosanna seemed to pose a bit of an obstacle to keeping tempo. The Benedictus brought the whole to a glorious close, and was greeted with a standing ovation. Under Mr. Mangini’s direction, the combined choruses and orchestra brought Mozart’s vision to life.
    Saturday night’s program alerted us to the society’s winter concert, which will be Handel’s “Messiah,” a perennial Christmas favorite around the world.  This is good news, but at the same time I’m growing very partial to Mr. Mangini’s ambitious summer concerts, when our local singers go out on a limb and tackle difficult repertory with such success. As much as I love Handel (and Christmas, for that matter), I’m already looking forward to next summer, curious as to what Mr. Mangini might have up his sleeve.