JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT October 20, 2005 2:00 AM
In launching a new season strongly devoted to Mozart, in his 250th birthday year, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra stepped away from the norm on Tuesday night.
Performing Mozart’s masterful “Requiem” with the Santa Barbara’s fine choral ensemble, Quire of Voyces, in the suitable environment of the First Presbyterian Church rather than the Lobero Theatre, the Chamber Orchestra’s usual home, the musical evening ended up being a gala of profound and serious — but not sober — proportions.
Of course, in the cavernous acoustics of this large chapel, the instrumental and choral forces found themselves in a much more reverberant space than the Lobero. That situation proved to be beneficial to the “Requiem,” but detrimental to Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, in the first half of the concert.
Despite the apparent clarity of the Symphony No. 29 performance led by maestro Heiichiro Ohyama, the room added a softening gloss to the orchestral sound, which isn’t necessarily what you want for those crisp classical phrases, but it did manage to give a luster to the slow movement.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ohyama coaxed the orchestra into a fit and balanced reading, illustrating the ensemble’s known skills in Mozartean splendor.
Naturally, this sold-out crowd packed into the church mainly for the “Requiem,” which has earned new heights of popularity in recent years following its key role in the film “Amadeus.”
Here is an extremely rare occasion when Hollywood fueled interest in classical music for its own sake, rather than exploiting existing classical works for filmic ends (as with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Richard Strauss or “Platoon” and others with Samuel Barber).
Popular or not, Mozart’s “Requiem” remains one of the more powerful and, arguably, the greatest “Requiem” in the repertoire, with Verdi’s coming in a close second.
When performed with the right emotional, technical and sonic means, as it was Tuesday, the opus verges on the transfixing, despite its ragged unfinished quality (incomplete when the composer died, the score was finished by composer Franz Sussmayr).
A glorious, integrated ensemble sound between orchestra and chorus was nicely achieved here, especially in the glowing power of the “Sanctus” section and the “Agnus Dei.” In “Confutatis,” the stern heft of male voices was answered by the ethereal air of female voices, both elements conjoining in the “Lacrimosa,” a pivot point in the overall structure of the piece.
The vocal soloists for the “Requiem” — soprano Elissa Johnston, mezzo-soprano Christina Wilcox, bass Jinyoung Jang and tenor Michael Lichtenauer — added their own extra layer of allure to the performance. Ms. Johnston and Mr. Lichtenauer, in particular, sang with an impressive purity of tone and clarity of expressive intent, coming to the fore with a notable presence on “Benedictus.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, in the end, Mozart’s masterpiece started the Chamber Orchestra’s season in a grand and deep fashion.
The “Requiem” form, after all, besides being an acknowledgment of the gravitas of death’s role in life — timed eerily, at the very end of Mozart’s own short-lived chronology — is also a rich affirmation of life itself.
And what better way to celebrate life than with great music played accordingly?