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Critic’s notebook: In a dark world, Fresno Master Chorale finds life in a requiem

The masks didn’t matter.

At Sunday’s Fresno Master Chorale concert, the 140-member ensemble performed the Mozart Requiem with each singer wearing a formal black mask. As you know, this isn’t exactly a soft and diffuse piece. It needs to fill the hall (and your soul) with the solemnity and weight of the music. And I had wondered, prior to the performance, about the impact of Covid precautions.

Pictured above: At top right, Anna Hamre, center, greets soloists Frank Pitts and Maria Briggs after the concert. Below, Hamre with Fresno Community Chorus president Alan Peters. Photos: Facebook

But I forgot about the masks three nanoseconds after conductor Anna Hamre gave the downbeat.

The chorale’s sound still had the gusto and verve of a souped-up engine running on premium. (Does that car metaphor even work anymore? How do you describe the vigor, say, of a Tesla?) The Dies Irae still sliced through Shaghoian Hall. The Sanctus still throttled the ears. I’m sure the masks somewhat impacted the singers’ diction, but to me, my ears quickly adjusted.

Perhaps it’s simply the sheer power of the number of voices. One wonderful thing about the Master Chorale, beyond its musicality and expert preparation, is its sheer size. When it comes to massive choral works, bigger can be better.

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Or perhaps it’s that masks haven’t been making as much of a difference during the pandemic as I thought. I sometimes had trouble understanding clerks at stores, for example, or students in class. But I’m also wondering if it’s less the volume reduction of a mask and more the fact that it’s covering up important visual cues. We all are fairly adept lip readers, and adding in non-vocal facial expressions – the nuances you get from a clear view of the lower half of someone’s face – really adds to the comprehension as well. While I’ve been cursing masks for reducing volume, maybe the greater impact was on my eyes.

Which is all a happy way of saying that the Sunday concert was thrilling – and quite an impressive volume as well.

My favorite movements: the Rex tremendae, with that gorgeous tenor line floating above like a puffy cloud; and the Sanctus, with its crisp, forceful fugue.

My favorite soloists: Frank Pitts’ powerful bass presence boomed through the Shaghoian. If his voice were a permanent marker, it’d be fat and thick, what the CIA would use to redact top-secret documents. And Fresno State’s Maria Briggs, singing soprano, was lovely. (If her voice were a writing instrument, it’d be a fountain pen: sure, strong, medium-fine point and elegant.)


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With this concert, I think we’ve reached the last of our major back-from-Covid firsts. It was a thrill to hear the Fresno Philharmonic once again come together live (a concert that also was in the Shaghoian), and we can say the same for the Fresno Master Chorale.

That the piece was the Mozart Requiem made it all the more bittersweet – not only for the chorale members who passed away during the pandemic, along with nearly a million other Americans, but also for the raging Russia-Ukraine war. The chorale sang the Ukrainian national anthem to kick off the concert. “Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians,” the translation goes. In these darker times, music can’t stop the bombs, but it can comfort hearts. We can only wish those words of the anthem come true.


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

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