As Tacoma Symphony Orchestra Chorus director Geoffrey Boers pointed out before his choir’s concert last Saturday night, venues can create wonderful music. For the TSO Chorus, singing its annual “solo” concert, the soaring arches, carved wood and enormous ceilings of First Presbyterian Church Tacoma offered up a giant playground to explore some of the most beautiful choral music ever written. And while the choir failed to utilize the space in the first half of the program, the second half was one of the most inventive and musical uses of space I’ve ever seen in this town.
The first half was Fauré’s “Requiem,” and it’s a pity that the sound here didn’t live up to the space. Singing from the front the choir used only a minimal version of the instruments the French composer wanted: one cello, one violin, one horn, harp and organ, on the softest stops. As a chamber piece (and introduced as such by Boers performing a lovely art-song) it would have worked in a chamber-sized church with a chamber choir. But with 80-some voices and a big acoustic, you expect more. The opening one-note intonation “Requiem,” the rolling “Kyrie,” the rippling and floating “Sanctus” – all sounded identically soft and delicate, the diction unclear and the tremendous poetry of this mass devolving into a nebulous tone-cloud. Even Fauré, who wrote the piece as a hopeful version of the afterlife, couldn’t have appreciated it. What is the point of a gorgeously angelic soprano line singing about Paradise if you haven’t just had a stern, scary glimpse of the alternative? Baritone soloist Andy Frazier sang that alternative, the “Libera Me,” as if it were a pleasant Christmas carol, and the choir’s “Dies irae” was about as threatening as a raincloud. Thanks to the lack of instruments the thudding downbeats in the “Kyrie” were also absent. Some poor intonation in the violin and cello didn’t help.
Nevertheless, the choir’s tone was faultless, and Renée Bagley sang a “Pie Jesu” as a real prayer, nicely phrased in a full, rosy soprano.
After intermission, though, all was forgiven. Darting around the church the choir sang everything from Eric Whitacre to Orlando Lassus from the three balconies, front and sides, exploring the surround-sound possibilities to the fullest. A Jacob Handl “Paternoster” bounced antiphony back and forth between women and men; Whitacre’s “Waternight” bathed the audience in lush sound and the impudent Italian of Lassus’ “Echo Song” resounded from a rich octet. A contemplative arrangement of “Shenandoah,” sung within the audience itself, immersed all in the heartbreaking beauty of the folksong, and even a mis-timed ending couldn’t spoil this terrific aural experience.
The TSO Chorus sings next on May 5 in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the TSO and soloists. 253-591-5894, tacomasymphony.org