The big work of the evening for the Mount Vernon Orchestra's concert at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall last Sunday was the massive orchestral and choral work, "Sacred Service," by Ernest Bloch. The orchestra was joined by the NOVA Community Chorus, baritone Kelley Arnold and Rabbi Arnold Fink who intoned in English some of the devotion and benediction of this deeply moving piece which was otherwise performed in the Hebraic text for which it was composed.
As regular patrons of the Mount Vernon Orchestra know from last season's performance of his Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, "Schelomo," Bloch was a rich orchestrator who could blend the sounds of the various sections of an orchestra without sacrificing the individuality of each. In "Sacred Service," he adds the forces of a full chorus but treats them as sections of the orchestra. The result is an emotional piece that can vary from intimate quiet moments to great rushes of sound.
In Part One the promise of a blend of orchestra and chorus became most notable at the exchange surrounding "Boruch Hu uvoruch Sh'mo (Blessed is He, Blessed be His Name)" while Part II's "Kodosh (Holy)" and final "Halleluyah" produced the wonderful fullness of which Bloch is capable.
The Chorus' musical director, Dr. Mark Whitmire, conducted the piece and drew performances from groups and soloists alike that were marked by judicious good taste. He had eight designated soloists among the chorus of nearly 90. The orchestral forces were tight and clean as well, with notable work from the brass and horn sections which Whitmire acknowledged during the bows.
The Schlesinger Center is a new hall and, as such, is still being fine-tuned for acoustical balance. The chief acoustician, Christopher Storch, said there are so many variables of placement of acoustical panels, dampers, spacers and surfaces that it could take as much as three years to find the best combinations for the various types of performances the hall can accommodate. This night, the sound was full and warm with the individual woodwind, brass and horn elements of the orchestra quite distinct but the strings tended to merge into a single although very rich sound. The chorus, which was placed on low risers behind the orchestra, seemed a bit muffled by all the bodies in front of it.
THE EVENING INCLUDED three non-choral works as well. These were conducted by the Mount Vernon Orchestra's Music Director Ulysses S. James with his usual casually proper podium style. Perhaps it is partially because he appears to be having such serious fun that the orchestra's sound is so exciting. Certainly, the range of material the players had to work with this night gave them plenty to enjoy.
They began with Beethoven's overture for the play "Egmont" which calls for very full sounding ensemble playing from the deep rumble of the opening to the release of the climax. There was a bit of ragged horn work early on and some tentativeness in the strings, but the group seemed to gain confidence as the work continued and they hit stride by the mid-point. Later on, they provided fine support for a duo of violinists who tackled Martinu's Concerto for Two Violins. Olivia Hajioff and Marc Ramirez travel and concertize together and their familiarity with each other's style and approach shows in the cooperation of their music making. But they challenge each other as well. His fluid bowing and masculine strength and her passionate but delicate touch, create contrasts in their work in front of the orchestra, but it is the two and a half minute segment for the pair alone that highlighted the contrasts.
In between those two completed works was a fourth installment of the sequential premiere of a new five-segment work by the orchestra's Composer-in-Residence, Haskell Small. His orchestral suite titled "Really?" is being revealed piece by piece over the course of the season. The first concert last fall had just the first movement, the atmospheric four minutes called "Why?" The next concert added the second movement, a two minute semi-syncopated musical race titled "So What!" The third element, titled "Are You Sure?" turned out to be a short scamper while the fourth, revealed for the first time in this concert, is a four minute contemplative rumination titled "How did We Come To Be?" This five-month-long tease will finally come to an end when the orchestra performs the complete suite for the first time at the next concert in early June. It will be featured along with music by Barber, Grieg and Khachaturian.