The last thing Mozart’s sublime motet “Ave Verum Corpus” needs is an opening act. But that’s just what composer Jake Runestad’s new work, “Ave Verum (Mozart Closes His Eyes and Begins Hearing ‘Ave Verum Corpus’)” is designed to be. The commissioned work, which had its world premiere on Sunday’s Choral Arts Society of Washington program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, is set to a text by Todd Boss that describes tenderly caring for Christ’s crucified body. A warm bath of feel-good neo-Romanticism, the piece sets comfy Mendelssohnian choral writing over a string-orchestra blanket of Copland-esque harmonies. The performance under Scott Tucker’s baton was undeniably committed. But with Runestad’s score running without pause into a ripely over-the-top reading of the Mozart work, the result proved an exercise in lily-gilding.
The performance of Mozart’s Requiem which followed was a gift for the kinds of folks who watch “Amadeus” with the surround sound cranked. I can’t remember hearing such a consistently loud, metrically dogged drive through this music. Kudos to the 170-plus member Choral Arts Chorus for its robustness and clarion tone, and the pickup orchestra’s disciplined playing. But when the cataclysm of the Dies Irae is indistinguishable from the choral assault in the other movements, the work’s elements of quiet grieving and hushed awe fly out the window. Sensitive work from fine soloists — soprano Yuanming Song, mezzo Allegra De Vita, tenor Matthew Loyal Smith and bass Wei Wu — wasn’t enough to counterbalance the conductor’s relentlessness.
Tucker’s approach to the Requiem was even more puzzling given that the concert began with his limpid, chamber-scaled, historically informed performance of Bach’s soprano cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” that featured pert, lovingly phrased work from soprano Song and sterling baroque trumpet-playing by an unidentified soloist. That Bach was as lithe and nuanced as the Requiem was ham-handed.