Nov. 16 2017 11:26 AM

Lansing Symphony, choral forces try to gel in baroque concert


Re-discovering the music of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel in all its intricate transparency, you have to wonder: Why aren’t there more large-scale baroque music concerts? After many nights of romantic-era thunderstorms and machine age hammerings from the likes of Beethoven or Prokofiev, it’s bracing to go aloft in a bright, membranous balloon of baroque melody and drift in pre-industrial skies of blue.

Friday’s Lansing Symphony concert suggested an answer why they don’t. It’s surprisingly hard to get these damn things in the air.

A smudgy, plodding reading of Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto set a less than ecstatic tone for the rest of the night. Two big choral works that followed fared better, but it was not the Lansing Symphony’s finest hour and a half.

To say the orchestra struggled through the Brandenburg concerto would not be quite right, because struggle implies lots of energy. Despite some lovely solo turns from individual musicians, the collective kick was oddly dampened and dispersed, resulting in a strangely deracinated, zombie-like performance.

Technical glitches should never keep a listener from appreciating a performance, especially if the passion is there, but the pervasiveness and persistence of the frayed edges Friday made it hard to relax and listen.

The usually buttery violin section turned to vinegar, bringing back a wrinkle of worry that I thought had been smoothed from my forehead forever at Lansing Symphony concerts: Can they stay in tune?

Bach added two horns to put a cherry on top of this exquisite concerto, but the horn players were barely heard, and not entirely welcome when they were.

First chair violinist and concertmaster Mallory Tabb played her featured passages with verve, and was clearly working like mad to put a spine into the intermittently blobby music-making going on around her.

When the orchestra turned to Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” the blob began to gel, especially when the 200-plus-voice chorus and two vocal soloists were lowered into the muddy water like anchors, under the captaincy of MSU choral director David Rayl.

Soprano Sara MacKimmie’s voice flickered with a fragile, candle-lit quality that made you lean forward to catch it all. She often leaned forward herself, looking blissed out to be the vehicle for Vivaldi’s bouncing music.

She was at her best when the music called for her to draw a single syllable into a long, sinuous line. At such moments, her inner candle glowed with a hypnotic blue flame and time itself seemed to slow down.

Mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell projected a distant, teacherly persona (she’s an MSU professor) that contrasted awkwardly with MacKimmie’s warmth, but she sang well, especially in view of her status as an eleventh-hour rescue mezzo. She was filling in for scheduled guest soloist Meg Bragle, who couldn’t make the gig.

Both soloists held the center of gravity well in their own solo turns, but their voices and styles didn’t blend well in their duet, “Laudamus te.”

The chorus was spirited but spot-on. When they surged into a mighty fugue — an exhilarating juggling act in which each section picks up the melody in turn — it felt like banks of turbines were being activated by a row of big red switches somewhere. Their daunting numbers ramped up the potential for more frayed edges, but the choral blend was like basic Arabica coffee, robust and unwavering.

Things looked up even more when a third soloist, tenor Steven Tharp, joined the group for Handel’s little-known “Foundling Hospital Anthem.”

Tharp stood up, pushed up his spectacles up his nose and issued forth with a ringing, trumpet-like voice perfectly suited to the joyful, ceremonial quality of Handel’s music. His pinpoint control didn’t detract from his deep delight in the music. He nailed the diction without sounding pedantic or fussy.

The technical issues on stage never went away completely, though. In one passage, the soprano section of the chorus and the violins are called upon to sing and play in unison, like two great wings soaring to the heavens, but they just weren’t generating the same note most of the time, making the flight more albatrossy than angelic.

Thanks, in part, to the uplift of Handel’s music — and Tharp’s clarion voice — the tapestry held together and even skirted the edge of transcendence. The ratio of moments that made you feel so good you forgot where you were, to moments that made you wish you were somewhere else, kept on getting higher, right up to the evening’s closer, the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.

However, it was hard not to notice that the audience seemed mainly packed with choral die-hards. There was a lot of ‘Here we are’ waving from the seats. And positioning the “Hallelujah” Chorus at the end is a pretty sneaky way of ensuring a standing ovation. (It’s a tradition to stand for it.)

The concert was originally set to end with the Vivaldi, but the order was changed at the last minute.

The other MasterWorks concerts of the season routinely reach startling levels of excitement and excellence, but if Friday’s concert is any sign, the annual choral entry could end up being judged by the second-tier, at-least-they-tried standard associated with end-of-school-year recitals.