March 10, 2016
It is not unusual to hear a retrospective concert covering 30 years in a composer's life. But what if the composer died at the age of 35? The 90-minute all-Mozart program presented by the San Antonio Chamber Choir last weekend at the Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center did just that: It began with a keyboard scherzo known to have been played by the young prodigy when he was four years old and concluded with excerpts from the Requiem that was incomplete at his death.
This unique agenda was created by the choir's artistic director, Richard Bjella, whose writings and workshops on the art of successful programming have made him a nationally-recognized expert. In addition to the 22-voice chorus, the exemplary performance included a piano and string quartet exploring a melange of Mozartiana, from solo keyboard works to operatic excerpts and portions of full-scale choral scores.
In the absence of program notes, we turned to the best source of information about the juvenile Wolfgang and his older sister: Notenbuch für Nannerl (Nannerl’s Music Book), which their father, Leopold, filled with simple keyboard compositions by himself and others for the children to play. The little boy’s first compositions were there, also, notated by his father. Thus, following the opening scherzo, pianist Cheryl Cellon Lindquist offered the charming little sonata written in 1761 when Wolfgang was five.
The remainder of the early years portion held “God is our Refuge,” an unaccompanied hymn written in English in 1765 while the Mozarts were in London and choral excerpts written by the 12 year-old in Vienna. His early knack for string writing – complete with sequences – was shown in the Rondo from the String Quartet K.80 (1770), performed with warmth and precision by violinists Briana Page Sarweh and Christina Steele, violist Jessica Alberthal and cellist Basel Sarweh.
At the age of 17, Mozart was in Milan where he met a famous castrato for whom he wrote an Exsultate jubilate. Soprano Megan Eyden delivered a graceful account of Part I, featuring especially smooth trills.
More mature works followed, highlighted by choral and solo excerpts from the opera Idomeneo (1780) with an impressive orchestral reduction scored for piano and strings by Texas Tech DMA composition student William Linthicum Blackhorse, whose similar arrangements were used elsewhere.
Portions of the Solemn Vespers, K.339 (1780) were conducted by Stephen Holcomb, winner of the choir's first MacPherson prize for excellence in choral conducting, awarded in honor of the choir's founder, Scott MacPherson. It was a nicely balanced, propulsive reading.
Three richly sung excerpts from the C-Minor Mass, K.427 included the Laudamus Te, which Mr. Bjella noted was written for Mozart’s wife, Constanza, reportedly a gifted soprano with an unusually wide range. The solution was a soprano-mezzo duet, here confidently offered by LaDawn Peterson and Joanna Kangas.
Semi-staged selections from Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1791) were delightful and well-executed, particularly the “Pa...Pa...Pa” duet between Papageno (Chaz Nailor) and Papagena (Megan Eyden).
The performance concluded with excerpts from the Requiem, delivered with transparency when needed or a surprisingly big, robust sound for a smallish choir. Singing in quartets instead of separate sections, they were positioned in a semicircle around and behind the piano and strings.
Throughout, Ms. Lindquist proved to be a sensitive accompanist as well as a skilled soloist. Her traversals of the juvenile scores were appropriately delicate, compared with her brisk yet finespun reading of the familiar "Rondo alla Turca" from the A-Major Sonata, K. 331.
San Antonio Chamber Choir
Mozart from (almost) the cradle to the grave
Richard Bjella conducting the San Antonio Chamber Choir in a 2014 concert at Mission Concepcion.Photo: Robert Stovers