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The annual Jubilate! concert presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts runs on a formula guaranteed to produce a successful show. First, assemble 20 carefully chosen singers with outstanding voices. Next, recruit an orchestra composed of first-class musicians who can play music from every period in history. Hand them scores for 19 arias, choruses, and other vocal works culled from the great Western tradition of religious music. For a grand finale, have them wow the audience with a big choral work sung by a chorus in which every chorister is a soloist.
It can’t fail. All you need are the singers and musicians.
Talent to spare
Fortunately, here in Philadelphia, we have an institution that can supply the singers. The Academy of Vocal Arts is located in three unprepossessing brownstones on Spruce Street, but it’s a major opera player. It’s a tuition-free school, like the Curtis Institute of Music, and, like Curtis, attracts top students from all over the world. AVA’s Resident Artists are just beginning their careers, but they’re the kind of students who would attend MIT if they were physicists or engineers.
As for the musicians—you can meet that requirement by hiring the hardworking freelancers who play with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Opera Philadelphia, and organizations like the Mendelssohn Club and Orchestra 2001. They’re major artistic resources in our region.
At this year’s Jubilate!, the quality of these musicians was evident in every piece they played. Sometimes it was an important touch, like the flute work in the introduction to an excerpt from a Mozart mass. Other times it was a front-of-the-stage performance, like the luminous harp accompaniment Sophie Bruno provided for a Saint-Saëns Noël sung by soprano Claire de Monteil, tenor Piotr Buszewski, and baritone Timothy Renner.
The mind behind AVA’s extravaganza, conductor David Anthony Lofton, selected relatively unfamiliar music and included some surprises. One first-half highlight was a four-part, very operatic Stabat Mater by Dvořák, a composer who isn’t normally associated with religious music. Most of the selections were taken from the 19th century, just like the major operas AVA students will perform as their careers flourish. It’s a kind of religious music we don’t often hear. The 19th century produced some spectacular religious works, such as Verdi’s Requiem, but staples of the modern choral repertoire tend to be masses and oratorios produced in earlier periods. For me, the term "sacred music" conjures up visions of pieces like the racing, jubilant Mozart that mezzo-soprano Alejandra Gomez sang near the beginning of the first half.
Nineteenth-century music is more dramatic and heavily orchestrated than music from earlier periods, but it includes surprisingly poetic pieces. Cesar Frank’s La Procession, sung by tenor Marco Cammorata, painted an appealing New Testament picture of God advancing through the fields.
Lofton’s 20th-century contributions included pieces by short-lived French composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and American “cowboy composer” Frank W. Guion (1892-1981). Boulanger’s two-line requiem matched Meryl Rodriguez’s floating soprano with an accompaniment that began with mystical simplicity and built to a bigger end. Guion’s “At the Cry of the first bird, they began to crucify Thee” paired a theatrical orchestra with a plaintive vocal line sung by mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig.
For the grand finale, Lofton opted for the most familiar chorus in the repertoire, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, sung by the whole cast. That normally calls for a few more choristers, but you only need 20 when they’re endowed with the power and training AVA’s students bring to their work. They sang opera-style, from memory, and stood in front of the orchestra, backs to the conductor. Done that way, the Hallelujah Chorus takes on some of the immediacy of an opera. Like good actors, the singers create the illusion that they’re making up their lines as they sing -- the way the angels do it.
What, When, Where
Jubilate! A Concert of Sacred Music. By Mozart, Purcell, Handel, Rossini, Verdi, Mendelssohn, et al. Rebecca Gulinello, Alexandra Nowakowski, Claire de Monteil, JoAna Rusche, Meryl Dominguez, soprano; Alejandra Gomez, Hannah Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Jonas Hacker, John Michael Myers, Matthew White, Marco Cammarota, Mackenzie Gotcher, Piotr Buszewski, tenor; Anthony Whitson-Martini, Christopher Kenney, Jorge Espino, Timothy Renner, baritone; André Courville, Anthony Schneider, bass. AVA Opera Orchestra. Igor Szwec, concertmaster. David Anthony Lofton, music director and conductor. March 19, 2017, at Holy Trinity Church, 1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 735-1685 or avaopera.org.
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