From Mozart to Gospel with the Camerata Singers

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Celebrating his tenth season as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Camerata Singers, John Koza has a well-earned reputation as an innovative concert programmer, and he is always seeking gently to stretch the ability of his ensemble and ignite the imagination and heart of the listener. In its latest concert, with music of only three composers, Koza and the Camerata Singers were able to engage the large and enthusiastic audience and bring the ensemble to a new level of vocal and musical excellence.

Entitled “For the Masses: from Mozart to Gospel!” the first half of the concert was all Mozart. A little-known offertory setting for chorus and strings, Inter natos mulierum, was the energetic curtain raiser, and it immediately took my attention away from the pine trees and sunny afternoon blue sky visible through the huge windows of Pacific Grove’s First United Methodist Church. As the piece unfolded I could appreciate how far Koza has brought this chorus in the five or six years I’ve been hearing them.

After the rousing concert opening, the ensemble gave us one of the loveliest renditions of Mozart’s haunting Ave Verum Corpus I have ever heard —  they absolutely had me right from the very first note. The singers maintained a blended, balanced, and full sound throughout, and made the composition seem entirely all too brief. Arthur Schnabel once said that Mozart’s music is “too easy for children and too difficult for adults,” and the Ave verum corpus is a good example. Its simplicity can be utterly moving, but only when sung with the discipline and love that I heard from the Camerata Singers throughout this entire concert.

The “Missa brevis in D Major”, a compact, forthright and energetic work from Mozart’s teenage years in Salzburg, was perfect for this ensemble. Singers like to say there is “no place to hide” in Mozart’s music, it must be sung with joy, finessed and not muscled. Koza led the ensemble through a sunny and stylish reading of the work.

It is a tribute to the level of vocalism in Camerata Singers that all solo assignments in this concert were taken by regular members of the ensemble. Susan Green, Nancy Miccoli, Robert Ramon and Michael Russell were the Mozartian vocal quartet, and they all sang with engaging style. Violinists Leah Bayes and Lila Woodman and contrabassist Plamen Velikov were the perfectly Mozartian Kammerorchester.

Music has the power to bring people together and allow us to experience the human qualities we all share, and so it is with the joyous tradition of contemporary Gospel music in the USA. In the second half of this concert the Camerata Singers let loose with Gospel-based compositions from two living Afro-American composers.

Grayson Brown is a singer, composer, writer, and popular Christian inspirational speaker, and his settings of “Holy Holy” and “O Lamb of God” gave the singers the opportunity to bring the strengths of the Mozartian vocal discipline into a slightly more easy-going and hearty contemporary style. The two texts come from the Latin mass (Sanctus and Agnus Dei) and continue Koza’s programmatic “Mass” theme. Plamen Velikov on electric bass and Phillipe Costa on drums helped to loosen things up, but the foundation that really held these first two songs together was the glorious work of pianist Pauline Troia, who created her own fabulous Gospel piano part from scratch for the two (originally) a cappella songs! Wow.

The delightful concluding work on the concert was the “Gospel Mass” by Robert Ray, a distinguished conductor and Chorus Master of the St. Louis Symphony. Ray wrote the Mass 30 years ago and it has stood the test of time well. Entirely in English, it moves easily from a translation of the Latin text to interpolated freely-composed lyrics. Koza and the Camerata Singers really pulled out all the stops, and the audience whooped and hollered after every movement and rose to their feet at the end. I truly believe I’ve never heard the Camerata Singers sound better than they did today.

At various points during the Gospel Mass, eleven (!) soloists stepped forward and sang into a hand-held mic in best Gospel tradition, and all brought style and verve to their moments. Rather than single out one or two individuals, I’ll mention a category instead: “Futures”. Each year Camerata Singers make it possible for serious high school singers to join the ensemble for the March concerts. During the past ten years the “Camerata Futures” program has given 74 teenagers the thrilling and formative experience of working with and being mentored by adult singers.  For example, how about this, more than half of the Gospel Mass soloists in today’s concert were current Camerata Futures students!

Bravissimi tutti!! to Camerata Singers and to John Koza for not only providing us with musical joys now but also for encouraging these wonderful young singers to bring music into their lives and into the future.

Footnote: When I attended the concert this afternoon, I actually had no idea that I would be writing this review! Only after the concert did a message reach me from Lyn Bronson, asking me to fill in for the originally scheduled reviewer. I love it when things like that happen.

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David Gordon has forged a unique international career as a teacher, lecturer, and singer of many kinds of music, from opera to oratorio to bluegrass. A specialist in the music of J.S. Bach, he serves as Dramaturge and Educator of the Carmel Bach Festival. His website is www.spiritsound.com. David is also creator and editor of an online calendar of classical music events throughout the Monterey Bay Region: www.ClassicalMusicMatters.com

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