Magnificent Music by the Choral Society of the Hamptons

By David Douglas
The vocal abilities, musical intuition, and poise of Emilia Donato as soloist were well beyond her 22 years. Durell Godfrey

The Choral Society of the Hamptons gave its spring concert, “Across the Centuries,” to a large and grateful audience this past Sunday, the first Sunday of spring, at the East Hampton Presbyterian Church.  In contrast to its December concert, which featured a seasonally themed program of works by mostly well-known composers, Sunday’s fare, although mostly sacred, was not directly tied to the religious holidays of the season. Furthermore, while two of the works were by composers whose names were likely somewhat familiar to casual concert-goers (although the piece attributed to one is now recognized to have been composed by his even less well-known teacher), another was probably unknown to virtually the entire audience, and the last was by a composer whose name is more likely to be recognized by ethnomusicologists and elementary-school music teachers than a general audience.  

This may not have looked promising on the page, but the singers of the choral society and the instrumentalists who accompanied them under Walter Klauss, the guest conductor, delivered magnificently.

Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767) was the godfather of J.S. Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel and was by far the better-known composer in their lifetimes.  He was also by most accounts one of the most prolific composers in history, and if his well-crafted compositions lack the profundity and spiritual force of J.S. Bach’s, they nonetheless occupy an important and respected place in the repertoire.  The concert began with Telemann’s “Laudes Jehovam, omnes gentes,” a setting of Psalm 17 composed for continuo and two violins, and for this endeavor, the singers were accompanied by the South Fork Chamber Ensemble, with Thomas Bohlert at the church’s organ.  While there were issues of balance between players and singers in the first section, this improved in the second, slower section, where the nicely shaped phrases allowed for a settling in among instrumentalists and singers and the chorus was able to hit full, confident stride in the “Alleluias” of the final section.

It is unlikely that many if any of Sunday’s audience were familiar with either the music or the name of Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954), but it is quite likely that online orders for his music spiked in our area after this concert.  Roger-Ducasse was a student of Gabriel Faure’s, and these three motets, “Regina coeli laetare,” “Crux fidelis,” and “Alma redemptoris Mater,” for organ, soprano solo, and choir, bear a strong resemblance to Fauré’s, “Messe Basse” for organ and treble choir. 

 But where the similarities are unmistakable, the differences are delightful.  Also delightful was the soprano soloist, Emilia Donato, whose vocal abilities, musical intuition, and poise were well beyond her 22 years of age. (The chorus might have learned from Ms. Donato’s ability to consult her score while maintaining connection with both Mr. Klauss and her audience.) The exuberant “Alleluias” that finished he Telemann yielded to exquisitely shaped “Alleluias” below the soloist in the first motet, “Regina coeli laetere.”  The crescendo to the word “crux” in the second motet, “Crux fideles,  was rendered even more effective by the long, carefully measured decrescendo to the word “dulce” (sweet). 

By this point it had become clear that Mr. Klauss had given priority in rehearsal to well-shaped, dynamically controlled phrases, and the care and attention clearly paid off. This was evident once again in the third motet, “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” especially in the final “Amens.” 

Thomas Bohlert’s playing was not only impeccable but showed that he was actually listening and responding to the group he was accompanying when the organ was in an accompanying role.

On the basis of both stylistic considerations and the lack of a copy in his own hand, most music historians agree that the Magnificat long attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) was actually the work of his teacher, Fran­cesco Durante (1685-1755). While this piece is not terribly challenging vocally or musically, it offers choruses a chance to shine in a substantial, multi-movement work from this period, and it brought back the South Fork Chamber Ensemble to provide a contrast with the chorus/organ sonority of the previous piece, this time in a better balance with the singers from the start. 

It was a relief to hear that, unlike so many performances of the first movement, the strings had been encouraged to think in terms of longer lines, with connected rather than detached eighth-notes in the bass and cello contributing to more of a sense of forward momentum than is sometimes heard. The Magnificat gave a chance for several of the choral society’s members to step forward as soloists, and Susan Vinski Conklin, soprano, and Christine Cadarette, alto, sang a lovely duet in the second movement while Tom White, a tenor, and Richard Louie, a baritone, blended nicely in the “Suscepit Israel.”

For most of the audience, the musical revelation of the afternoon may well have been the “Laudes Organi” of Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967). In addition to his work as a composer, Kodaly was an ethnomusicologist who collected and transcribed Hungarian folk songs, and he was a music educator who developed a system of instruction that is still very much in use all over the world.   “Laudes Organi” was commissioned for the 1966 convention of the American Guild of Organists and was Kodaly’s last major work. He took the 15 verses of a 12th-century piece praising the glories of the organ (at that time a relatively new instrument) and grouped them into seven sections with an introduction, several interludes, and a postlude for solo organ, which also accompanies the chorus. (In a nice touch, Kodaly set an optional final verse praising Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th-century monk whose familiar system of musical syllables — do, re, mi, fa, sol — was the basis of Kodaly’s own system eight centuries later.)

It was a tribute to all involved — singers, conductor, accompanist, and audience — that this challenging piece in a largely unfamiliar musical style received the warmest applause of the evening. Once again, the attention to dynamics and the shaping of phrases, particularly in the two “Amens” of the final section, were simply thrilling, and if the price of this attention to larger musical concerns was a little less attention to smaller details, such as lining up consonants and clean releases of final notes of phrases, it was a price worth paying. It was of course fitting that the organ gets the final word in this piece praising the virtues of the instrument, but it was also appropriate that Mr. Bohlert was given his due. He is not a flashy, demonstrative player, but he is a consummate musician and his sensitivity and proficiency made possible highly successful performances of challenging and unfamiliar compositions.

Walter Klauss is no stranger to East End concert-goers. Among other things, he is impresario and performer at the Bach and Beyond concert series held at the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor. Nor is he a stranger to the singers of the choral society, which he has guest-conducted on many occasions. Still, it is interesting to hear an ensemble perform under someone other than their usual conductor, somewhat akin to watching a ship respond to the commands of a new captain, one with a different approach to winds, waters, and crew. Nowhere was Mr. Klauss’s command of his vessel more evident than in his navigation of the “Laudes Organi.” His is an experienced and sure hand and he clearly has the teaching skills to help his singers handle the relatively unfamiliar melodic and harmonic syntax of Kodaly’s music.

Although it was evident right from the first piece that the guest conductor had clear ideas about dynamics and how he wanted phrases shaped, and that the group had been rehearsed to these ends, with the exception of a handful of singers, the chorus rarely looked up from their music at their director, even when doing nothing more than holding out a long note at the end of a phrase. This is unfortunate. The members of the choral society have shown themselves to be capable, well-prepared singers, and Mr. Klauss is an experienced director whose gestures and facial expressions are capable of communicating a great deal to a group if they would only allow themselves an occasional glance up from their music. In addition to the loss of communication between singers and conductor, something is also lost between singers and audience when eyes and faces are cast down.

One final thought: There is an under-appreciated art to designing a satisfying concert program. Effectively balancing unity, variety, thematic considerations, and the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble requires experience, thoughtfulness, and creativity, all of which have been on display in the first two concerts of the choral society’s 2016-2017 season. Even more impressive, though, is the way that the three concert programs of the season have been designed to create a larger, satisfying whole. We began in December with the familiar, Bach, Schutz, and Mozart, were introduced to unfamiliar names and music in March, and are now anticipating a monumental conclusion to the season with the Brahms Requiem on July 8. This is intelligent, artistic programming, and music lovers on the East End are the fortunate beneficiaries.