It has been all about Donald, this week, in DC. Tonight, another Donald – Runnicles – was in town, to conduct an all-French program at the Kennedy Center. “Beware of being too modern,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, “one is apt to become old-fashioned rather too suddenly.” Maurice Duruflé was one of the French moderns, but one can’t accuse him of being too much so; his time as a boy chorister at Rouen Cathedral imbued him with a life-long love of chant, and it is this idiom that forms a core of the Requiem he composed in 1947.

Donald Runnicles © Florence McCall
Donald Runnicles
© Florence McCall

The University of Maryland Concert Choir gave a serious performance and manifested great commitment to both the sobriety and restraint of the work. They captured something of the simplicity of its Gregorian chant. There was a fullness of feeling evoked from contemplative acceptance to bereft anguish, and some very powerfully sung culminations, in the Domine Jesu Christe, Sanctus and Libera me in particular – where passion was called for and rendered in full measure. Occasionally, there were choral/orchestral mismatches of tone and volume. I felt one such happened in the Kyrie when the choir’s decrescendo was in advance of the orchestra, and thus not even in effect. Transitions could have been better managed in general – it is a work which demands finesse in this regard – and coming down from the high places of transfiguration could have been more smooth. In the Lux aeterna, a limpidly articulated and exquisitely soft ending was a thing of beauty, well reflecting the words quia pius es – “for thou art gracious”. This Requiem does not have a whole movement of Dies irae, but it evokes both the words and feeling – in the Libera me; one can’t, therefore, accuse Duruflé of lacking teeth for all that the overall tone is meditative rather than the breast-beating weeping and gnashing of teeth kind. Christian Bowers (baritone) and Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) clearly intoned their solos. This was quite a successful performance of a moving work.

The program had opened with the work of one of the French composers Duruflé’s most admired, Claude Debussy. Debussy’s piano preludes, composed between 1909 and 1913 were orchestrated by Colin Matthews in the early 2000s, using instruments that Debussy might have used himself, but adding a saxophone for ragtime effect. I was not entirely convinced by tonight’s rendition. Minstrels came across as a little lumpen, frankly; the eccentric General Lavine was also on the stodgier side: both stood in need of greater crispness and rhythmic drive. Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) needed to tap more into its inner Baudelaire. It was on the tentative side of delicate rather than on the mystical side. La Puerta del Vino (The Gate of Wine) didn’t quite coalesce into the Iberian Moorish fantasy that it is.

Then we moved onto the Nocturnes. Debussy composed three orchestral nocturnes between 1897 and 1899, in response to the inspiration of the American painter, James McNeill Whistler. Here we have a nice back-and-forth between music and art. Whistler borrowed the term Nocturne from music to describe his depictions of “dreamy, pensive” moods, his vision of reality veiled by night or half-light. Debussy borrowed the term back for his compositions. Down the road, at the Freer and Sackler Gallery, and also at the National Gallery, we are lucky enough to possess some of Whistler’s choicest nocturne paintings; perhaps the orchestra could have done with a trip to enter into the spirit of what Debussy was seeking to do – experimenting, so he said, “with the various combinations of texture that can be made from one color – like a study in grays.” A study in grays. We didn’t quite get the fullness of this, in all the desirable touches of shading and nuance, that we might have. Not that this wasn’t pleasing on the ear. It was; it just didn’t touch on the numinous to the degree that Debussy might have wished. 

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