Clarity and Balance

By Adam Judd
Dominic Inferrera, Nils Neubert, Charlene Marcinko, and Darynn Zimmer were the featured soloists at the Choral Society of the Hamptons’ winter concert on Sunday in Bridgehampton. Durell Godfrey

During what is now known innocuously as the holiday season, many people set aside time for at least one live music performance. Those looking for Advent music found a perfect opportunity on Sunday to hear two musical settings of the Canticle of Mary, otherwise known as the Magnificat. The Choral Society of the Hamptons once more joined forces with the South Fork Chamber Orchestra and a quartet of fine soloists to present an uplifting concert featuring interpretations from Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

In addition to sharing the text, these two works have a historical connection: it was Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin that reawakened public interest in the baroque master’s music. As Mark Mangini, the choral society’s music director, mentions in his illuminating program notes, Mendelssohn’s use of complex counterpoint represents homage to J. S. Bach and a sincere admiration for his works.

Anyone who has heard Bach’s Magnificat in D major knows that its energetic opening movement immediately engages the listener. From the constant subdivision in the strings, to the soaring trumpet lines, to the joyous melismata and octave leaps in the opening vocal passages, the piece opens in an exultant fashion appropriate to its jubilant text. Anyone who has sung this piece knows that it is extremely demanding for the voice (and brain), and the choral society is to be commended for its fine performance of such a challenging work.

Although each of the choral movements has a unique musical character reflective of its text, none can be described as easy for the singers. At Sunday’s performance, the choral society brought a clarity and balance to the work’s intricate counterpoint that was especially remarkable for an ensemble numbering 68 voices.

The South Fork Chamber Orchestra — including the oboes and bassoons one expects in concerted choral music of the high baroque — did an excellent job of fulfilling its varied yet crucial roles. The balance, both within the orchestra and with the singers, was very well managed throughout the performance. If there were occasional moments where the continuo and the strings fell out of sync, they were soon corrected; it cannot be easy to stay together with the organist in a rear balcony, following a video feed of the conductor, and the organ pipes behind the singers, well away from the sounds produced by the rest of the orchestra.

Special note should go to the trumpet section, and in particular to the principal trumpeter, Anthony Limoncelli, for ably handling the many figures calling for clarino technique. Music written for trumpet in the time before the development of valves on the instrument lives in a very high range, and Mr. Limoncelli proved himself equal to even the most demanding passages.

The choral society recruits highly accomplished soloists, and for this concert they were Darynn Zimmer, soprano, Charlene Marcinko, mezzo-soprano, Nils Neubert, tenor, and Dominic Inferrera, baritone. In the Bach Magnificat, each non-choral movement features one or more of the vocal soloists as well as highlighting a particular instrumental color. Ms. Zimmer’s beautiful rendition of Quia respexit was actually a duet with the principal oboist, Terry Keevil, and his warm tone complemented her voice superbly. Likewise, Mr. Neubert’s powerful delivery of the Deposuit potentes text was echoed non-verbally in the strings, while Ms. Marcinko had the support of excellent playing from the flutes in Esurientes implevit bonis.

At several points, the vocal soloists yielded the spotlight to their instrumental partners, recognizing with humility that Bach’s contrapuntal writing sometimes passes the principal themes to the featured instruments and briefly assigns a voice to the obligato role. A beautiful shift of texture occurred in the Suscepit Israel section, with 11 women who are members of the choral society forming a highly effective semi-chorus that helped to transition from the preceding solo movements to the return of the full chorus for the Gloria Patri.

It is almost impossible when listening to Felix Mendelssohn’s Magnificat in D Major to believe that a boy of 12 wrote such a beautiful, complex, and well-orchestrated piece of music. However, one must recall that his family provided early support for his music education, and that his grandmother had been a student of J. S. Bach. What greater affirmation can be ascribed to the South Fork Chamber Orchestra and the Choral Society of the Hamptons than to assert that their performance of this piece allowed the listeners to marvel at its composer’s ingenuity?

At the earlier of two performances on Sunday, the singers and orchestra seemed to find a greater level of comfort with the Mendelssohn Magnificat than with its baroque inspiration. Perhaps, as a later composition, the vocal and instrumental demands of the Mendelssohn are better suited to modern performers — or it could be that presenting a second piece took advantage of a growing synergy among the performers. In the initial movement, the chorus displayed an incredible balance and blend among the sections, and they sustained it through each of the choral movements.

A compositional advantage that Mendelssohn had over Bach was the ability to command much more nuanced dynamic shifts. The singers and the orchestra provided two thrilling examples: the first was an extended crescendo in the first movement, and the second a sustained decrescendo in the Gloria Patri. Particularly impressive throughout the concert, but particularly in the Mendelssohn, was the soprano section.  They found a collective tone that balanced clarity with richness and strength, akin to the sound one might expect from a select college choir or a professional ensemble. The tenor section was also excellent.  They especially shone in the Gloria Patri, demonstrating that a mix of age and gender among the singers can lead to a strong, yet acoustically balanced sound.

As observed in the program notes, Mendelssohn’s work leaves the singers without significant support from the orchestra in a number of places, including a few where the vocal counterpoint is fairly intense. Perhaps this was a result of the young composer’s inexperience in seeing his works through to performance, or maybe it represents an assurance that his ideas could be realized by local singers whose capabilities he knew. Whatever his reasons, Mendelssohn created several gorgeous moments where the orchestra all but disappears, and the singers hold sway. As just one example, the soloists did a beautiful job in the Deposuit potentes movement, singing together in counterpoint despite meager, purely decorative bits for the orchestra.  The many people who filled the church were well rewarded.

Before the audience was invited to join in singing carols, a tradition of the choral society’s annual holiday concert,  the Pierson High School Chorus, some 40 singers, filled every available space to augment the choristers and orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn’s simple and elegant “Behold a Star from Jacob Shining.” The fortes and pianissimos from 100 voices was a thrilling concert conclusion.  

Adam Judd is dean of the performing arts at the Ross School in East Hampton.  

On Sunday, the Choral Society of the Hamptons offered a fine performance of Bach’s Magnificat in D major, an “extremely demanding” piece for the voice. Durell Godfrey