Robert Spano conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus in an ambitious concert in Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. The results were as mixed as the programming, which featured J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 and Magnificat, alongside Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine.

The most successful performance was of Messiaen's richly orchestrated Liturgies for women's chorus and an astonishing array of instruments, including solo piano, celesta, vibraphone, percussion, and ondes Martenot (similar in sound to the theremin).

Margaret Kampmeier deftly realized the piano solo, energetically grabbing chords then quickly snapping her hands back from the keyboard. Kampmeir's playing was always crisp and clean, and perfectly complemented the tone of the Steinway she was playing. The at times bell-like quality of the instrument was reinforced by the celesta, played by Elizabeth DeFelice.

The women’s chorus sounded lovely, and it is astonishing to believe that these highly-trained singers are actually volunteers. Though their French diction could use some improvement, the ensemble of approximately thirty women was incredibly impressive throughout all of Messiaen's challenging work. Indeed, one can hardly blame the singers for favoring tone-production over pronunciation, considering the composer’s original text is as colorful and strange as the orchestration.

Bach's "Brandenberg" Concerto no. 3 was performed one-on-a-part, with harpsichord, cello, and contrabass continuo. Though the performance was energetic, the ensemble – due to its size – often did not produce enough sound to fill the hall.

In contrast to the one-on-a-part concerto was the performance of the Magnificat, in which the ensemble was more appropriately sized to perform say, the Brahm's Requiem or other 19th century warhorses. If conductors are willing to perform with appropriately reduced ensembles for some pieces, why don't they extend this practice when performing other pieces from the same era?

The choruses in the Magnificat suffered the most. Spano's tempi often muddled Bach's lucid five-part choral writing as often as the size of the chorus itself. The "Omnes generationes," for example, was performed so quickly that the movement rolled along clumsily like tennis shoes in a dryer.

Spano reassigned the soprano II aria “Et exultavit,” the alto aria “Esurientes,” and the alto line in the duet “Et misrecordia” to Sasha Cooke – a mezzo-soprano. Her voice had a lovely color, though these pieces sound best performed by a soprano and a male alto (countertenor).

The highlight of the performance was Nicholas Phan's delivery of the “Deposuit.” Phan, though still unknown to some, is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most outstanding tenors of any generation. Tonight, it was clear that he was probably one of the most talented musicians on stage. As soon as Phan began to sing, you could hear a noticeable improvement from the violinists, who seemed to up their game simply by virtue of listening to his superior musicianship.

Phan also gave a lovely rendition of the tenor line in the duet “Et misrecordia.” His cadential ornaments at the end of the piece were exquisite – he reiterated the same pitches written almost like a small “goat’s trill” often used in 17th century music. The effect was stunning and matched the painful Affekt of the music.

While overall the Magnificat was not as up-to-date as other recent performances and recordings of the piece, Bach’s music always sounds delightful, even when performed on instruments and voices for which it was not originally intended.

The concert was worth attending to hear the Messiaen alone, however, particularly since Spano was able to secure Jean Laurendeau to play the ondes Martenot solo – the leading performer on the instrument today.