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Review: Master Chorale rejoices in a concert focused on the rhapsody of song

CONCERT REVIEW

We were like patients dehydrated from lack of joy, and the Fresno Master Chorale was the IV dripping that missing jubilance directly into our veins. In a thoroughly screwed-up, hyper-polarized, often exceedingly angry-feeling world, music is one of the things that can bring people together. The ensemble’s concert on Sunday afternoon did exactly that.

Pictured above: Members of the Fresno Master Chorale backstage at the ‘Jubilate Deo’ concert. Photo: Facebook

The lineup featured two contemporary composers known for their accessible musical languages and lush, smiling harmonies, there weren’t many sharp edges on this program. (No major bouts of dissonance, no grating intonations, no searching for the intellectual or mathematical.) Instead, we got big, rounded, emotional moments that felt sweet and sturdy. With nearly 250 musicians on stage, along with several guest artists playing specialty instruments, the audience experienced a wall of sound, the kind that cheerfully rattles around in your soul.

Here are a few thoughts:

Ola Gjeilo’s “Sunrise Mass” was my favorite.

Oh, what a joy. Using the traditional structure and lyrics of the Latin Mass, this moving and revelatory piece was at times ethereal, cacophonous, soothing, clanging and celebratory. The first movement of “Sunrise Mass,” titled “The Spheres,” made me think of the beginnings of time, with overlapping chords suggesting floating, bumping celestial bodies forming from the void. As the movements progressed, I thought of scaffolding, as if something — humanity? a single individual? a universe? — were being constructed in front of me. And then, finally, in “Identity,” the final movement, a last note that could be a last breath. Or, perhaps, a first breath. Conductor Anna Hamre found the nuance in this exceptional piece.

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The lighting design added another dimension.

Members of the chorale used special battery-operated lights that clipped on to their music folders. This meant that lighting designer Elena Tsuchiya could get dark when need be, particularly in the first two movements of the “Sunrise Mass,” as colors slowly shifted to mirror the progress of the rising sun.

I especially liked the aesthetic of the choir in near darkness, bathed only by those little music-folder lights, which looked like little antennae perking up to provide illumination. The Fresno Master Chorale first introduced stage lighting in its performance of Bach’s St. John Passion in May, and this latest concert took it much further in terms of theatricality. It was very effective.

Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo” was inspiring and busy.

I am a fan of Forrest’s body of work, particularly as music to listen to as I write. (It can’t be a bad thing to be happy when you’re writing, except maybe when you’re critiquing Blue Man Group.) “Jubilate Deo” is a setting of Psalm 100, and its multilingual theme soars (“O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands.”) Parts are sung in Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin, Zulu and Spanish, with corresponding rhythms and instrumentation.

Is this sprawling, exuberant, culturally ecumenical choral work my Forrest favorite? No. I found it, well, a little much, like an Everything bagel. At times, the abundance of sound and the sheer number of things going on was overwhelming: cymbals crashing, French horns soaring, drums pounding, strings swelling, soloists coming and going, lights transitioning, voices building to one lush emotional climax after another. (I never was able to hear the erhu soloist.) The danger was having all this sound mushy and indistinct, which at times it did. Make no mistake: I enjoyed this piece and was often inspired and exhilarated by it, but it also exhausted me as a listener.

The musicianship was high and the commitment of the singers inspiring.

Hamre coaxed moments of tenderness and raucousness from her singers, who were joined by the Reyburn Intermediate Chamber Choir. This was an emotional concert, and you could feel the connection between the musicians and audience. A lineup of vocal soloists added poignant personal moments (Devynn Braswell and Anne McGrath offered vibrant touches to the “Bendecid su nombre” movement of the Forrest piece.) The chamber orchestra, too, was first-rate, with concertmaster Susan Doering providing several gorgeous solo moments in “Sunrise Mass.” I have a particular favorite moment of watching the cellos sawing furiously away in the Gjeilo piece. The passion of the four players added to the excitement.

Why was this concert special?

Theresa Taliaferro on concert day.

Because of singers like Theresa Taliaferro. I suspect she would never dream of getting singled out in a review such as this. She wasn’t a soloist and didn’t have any special role. But time and again, I found myself drawn to her as she stood there in the first row of standing singers. Why? Because of her smile. When she sang, and even when she was just listening, her expression said it all. She shared her happiness with us. Theresa Taliaferro represented what music can do. She helped deliver what this concert promised: a jolt of joy in an uneasy world.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Anna Hamre

    Thank you Donald for all you do to cover the arts in the Central Valley!

    reply

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