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Concert Review

Dallas Choral Festival soars with sacred music of Howells and Poulenc

Mon Jan 15, 2018 at 2:10 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Greg Hobbs conducted the Dallas Choral Festival Sunday at Moody Performance Hall.

Two rarely performed twentieth-century choral works were heard Sunday afternoon at Moody Performance Hall as the Dallas Choral Festival– a 100-voice professional chorus performing with professional orchestra–presented its third concert ever.

The result was a musical experience of extraordinary emotional intensity, as the well-nigh perfect choral ensemble, joined by conductor Greg Hobbs and a professional orchestra, achieved the otherworldly aura that the combination of great words and great music can create.

French composer Francis Poulenc was a notoriously worldly man, much of whose music radiates light-heartedness, humor, and joie de vivre. Yet he began exploring the more serious elements of life during his middle years. The death of a close friend in 1949 compelled him to turn to the medieval Stabat Mater text, a description of the sorrow of Mary the Mother of Jesus on the death of her son—and, by implication, the universal human experience of loss.

The poem itself is sectional, with eighteen short three-line stanzas; Poulenc answered this structural challenge with short, distinctive movements which, while drawing on a huge range of styles, create a miraculously unified effect. One can hear influences ranging from Gregorian chant and Mozart to Berlioz and jazz, somehow seamlessly coming together to convey a sense of morning and consolation.

Conductor Hobbs and his chorus signaled their magnificent technical polish in the first movement, in which the luminous intonation produced an angelic radiance. Precision of phrasing and razor-sharp articulation of consonants likewise contributed to this perfect marriage of words and music, while the orchestra proved adept across the huge range of styles. Soprano soloist Julianna Emanski’s lovely but light voice, was often overshadowed by the choral and orchestral forces behind her.

As with Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi was written in response to personal loss—in this case, the sudden death of his nine-year-old son in 1935. Howells drew on a wider range of texts, including the Psalms, the Roman Catholic Requiem, the Anglican service for the dead, and the Sarum Rite, a Catholic liturgy particular to Britain in the late Middle Ages.

Like Poulenc, Howells transformed personal grief into universal consolation; while both men wrote in unmistakably modern idioms, the English composer leans toward thicker, more opulent textures. Though Howells opens with strikingly dissonant choral harmonies (no easy task for any chorus) he moves quickly into the lush textures of the English oratorio tradition, pushing that tradition even further into beautifully rich  almost overwhelmingly complex sonic layers.

Here too conductor Hobbs, the chorus, and orchestra put across a performance that, through perfection of technique, produced an almost heart-wrenching emotional effect. This was particularly evident in the central movement’s combination of the Latin “Sanctus” with Psalm CXXI, in which clarity emerges from dense textures. And, while the “Sanctus” is in some ways the keystone of this grand structure, the most striking moment occurs in the final movement, when the orchestra suddenly halts and the chorus proclaims, unaccompanied and in inspired harmonies, the text “Holy is the True Light.” Here, once again, the unanimity and clarity of the chorus hit like a bolt of lightning.

Throughout Hobbs deftly aimed the performance toward its multiple climactic moments. Tenor Randall Umstead joined soprano Emanski as soloist; while providing a slightly stronger presence, he too was frequently overshadowed at moments when his voice should have been more forward.

In this third production by the Dallas Choral Festival, the organization proved itself well worthy of broad community support and a permanent place on the Dallas music scene.

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January 16

Houston Society for the Performing Arts
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