The end of an era was formalized--you might say a baton was handed on--in the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel on Oct. 31, when Jesse Parker conducted the University of Maryland Chorus and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in the short, intensely emotional "Naenie" of Johannes Brahms and the epic Requiem that Mozart left not-quite-finished at his death. The University of Maryland Chorus, founded in 1967, was performing under a new music director for the first time.
The chorus has worked with other conductors before--for example, in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony many times with the National Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati and other conductors. But this was the first time it had sung on the College Park campus without Paul Traver, who founded it and conducted it to international recognition during his long tenure as its music director.
Traver, who retired at the end of last season, was in the audience for this occasion, seated unobtrusively upstairs. Did he have mixed feelings, he was asked in a pre-concert conversation. Well, yes, he admitted quietly.
The chorus has not yet appointed a new, permanent music director--Parker is listed as interim director in the program--and Traver will be returning as a guest conductor. But of course, it will never be quite the same again. A letter from Parker, inserted into the program, paid warm tribute to Traver: "One does not follow such a legend as Paul Traver easily, I assure you. His musical legacy of many, many memorable performances here, in New York and abroad will be remembered for a long time."
As far as the quality of the chorus is concerned, this concert showed that Traver has left his chorus in good hands. It remains a marvelously trained ensemble, precise in ensemble, intonation and diction, emotionally expressive, rich and well-balanced in tone, versatile in its adaptation to the pensive late romanticism of Brahms and the intensely emotional but classically disciplined style of Mozart.
For a few moments in the Mozart, the sound of the orchestra overbalanced that of the chorus--not surprisingly considering the geographic distance between their headquarters in Annapolis and College Park and the limited orchestral rehearsal time (unlike amateur chorus rehearsals, professional orchestra rehearsals cost money--as they should). But imbalances were momentary, the orchestra played with precision and the chorus was superbly prepared.
The four Mozart soloists--soprano Deborah Stephens, alto Leonida Crawford, tenor Bryce Westervelt and bass David Brundage--were positioned in front of the orchestra and had no balance problems at all. They sang well, collectively and individually; I was particularly happy with Brundage's "Tuba mirum"--a deep-voiced duet with an eloquent trombone.
The Memorial Chapel is--visually as well as acoustically--an excellent place to hear Mozart--or Handel, who has often been performed there, or Hildegard von Bingen and other composers ancient and modern. But its chastely classical architectural style seems particularly hospitable to music of the 18th century.
The choral balances and dynamic nuances were enhanced by the chapel's intimate acoustics in the Brahms "Naenie" ("Lament"), a brief, moving meditation on the fragility of human life and work with a German text by Friedrich Schiller: "Even Beauty must perish! . . . Perfection must die." An apt meditation for the end of an era, perhaps--or for a performance on Halloween.
But, appropriately, it was followed by the Requiem, music of consolation and promise as well as a remembrance of the departed. A central text of the traditional Requiem Mass--usually sung in plainchant at actual ceremonies and not set to music by classical composers--promises that "vita mutatur, non tollitur" ("life is changed, it is not taken away"). A good motto for a chorus going through the first major transition in its history.