Oratorio Chorale

In the News

Portland Press Herald Maine Today (posted November 28)



Christopher Hyde – contributor – classbeat@netscape.net

The three Saturday and Sunday performances of the Mozart Requiem, K. 626, by the Oratorio Chorale, at Bowdoin College’s Studzinski Recital Hall, were sold out well in advance. Word of mouth was that something special was about to occur, and the rumors were correct.

Director Emily Isaacson has made every program by the Chorale an outstanding event. This time, she had an imposing array of musicians at her command, including the Mozart Mentors Orchestra with members of the Bowdoin Orchestra, the Maine Chamber Ensemble and the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, the Chorale and the Bowdoin College Chorus.

They were accompanied by noted soloists Estelí Gomez, soprano; Virginia Warnken, alto; Eric Dudley, tenor; and Dashon Burton, bass-baritone.

Isaacson had every aspect of the performance under control from beginning to end. At her signal, the massed choristers opened their scores simultaneously, creating an effect like a cloud of butterflies exercising their wings.

It is not too far-fetched to think of it as exemplifying the flight of Mozart’s soul in this, his last, unfinished work. Before the final Communion the soloists tiptoed off stage, leaving the whirlwind consummation to the orchestra and chorus.

Although the large instrumental ensemble might be considered a “scratch” orchestra, it was well rehearsed and totally professional, supporting the chorus but never overwhelming it. I loved the combination of trombones and basses in the Tuba mirum.

The soloists were also first rate, with clarity of tone combined with the power to stand out against the backdrop of orchestra and chorus. They were distinguished in every solo, duet and quartet role.

Isaacson’s control showed itself in rapid dynamic shifts and clean, crisp beginnings, entrances and endings, something difficult to accomplish with such a large musical palette.

Although the Requiem has its tragic moments, notably in the Lacrimosa and Agnus Dei, it is surprisingly light-hearted. A little over an hour in length, it seemed to go by in an instant.

The Requiem was completed by Mozart’s friend and pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, from sketches and indications by the composer. He did such a good job that it is difficult to determine where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins. The Benedictus, supposedly by the pupil, withstands comparison with similar works by the master.

It is a cliche among critics to lament what might have been had, say, Schubert or Mendelssohn lived longer. Could Mozart have bettered Süssmayr? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. In the case of the Requiem, I’m satisfied with what we have.


Oratorio Chorale, Bowdoin College Chorus

bring a piece of musical history to life


BY GINA HAMILTON Times Record Staff

The Oratorio Chorale, together with the Bowdoin College Chorus, performed the Mozart Requiem on November 22 and 23 at the Studzinski Recital Hall at Bowdoin College. They were accompanied by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, the Bowdoin College Orchestra, the Mozart Mentors Orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble. Four soloists, from the ensemble Roomful of Teeth, performed as well.

All together, 150 musicians performed the Mass, which is shrouded in mystery, under the baton of Emily Isaacson.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived only until he was 35, but in that short life, he changed musical history for all time. By the time of his death, he had 30 years of a very active musical life. During his lifetime, he wrote 626 pieces of music that historians know of, although occasionally an unknown score turns up that appears to be a Mozart piece. Some of these are currently being examined by musical historians, even today, with the hope of adding them to his list of works. Though this number seems phenomenal, other composers wrote similar or even greater numbers of works over their lifetimes, although they had longer working lives in which to do so. Johannes Sebastian Bach, for instance, wrote about 1,120 compositions during his long career.

The piece he was working on when he died, appropriately enough, was his Requiem, K.626. A Requiem is a Mass for the dead.

In July of 1791, an unknown man gave Mozart a commission to write the Requiem Mass. The man did not reveal his name or the name of his patron, although Mozart likely knew the name of his patron — Count Franz van Walsegg of Stuppach, who wanted the piece to honor his late wife.

By November, however, Mozart was desperately ill, likely with rheumatic fever, and the Requiem was still unfinished. In the middle of writing the Lacrimosa section, where the Latin text begins “On that day full of tears, when from the ashes arises guilty man, to be judged:”, Mozart died, on December 6, leaving half the Mass undone.

Ultimately, his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had taken some of the dictation, completed the work and it was delivered to Walsegg. But Mozart’s widow, Constanze, made and kept a copy of the piece, which was used in a benefit performance for her family in 1793.

 The Mass is by turns comforting and terrifying, as the object is not only to comfort the bereaved family, but also to scare still-living people into spiritual contrition. In the “Dies Irae, Dies Illa” section, the massive choir warns of the judgment day to come:

“Day of wrath, that day shall dissolve the world in ashes, as foretold by David and the Sibyl.
What trembling there will be when the Judge shall come to weigh man’s deeds strictly!”

However, the soloists hold out hope that Jesus will rescue the faithful dead. In “Recordare, Jesu Pie,” the music changes abruptly from the terrifying “Dies Irae” to a softer, more beckoning tone:

“Remember, gentle Jesus, that I am the reason for Thy time on earth, do not cast me out on that day…
Thou hast redeemed me by dying on the cross, such travail must not be in vain.”

The wall of sound in small Studzinski Recital Hall was awesome in the most literal sense of the word, especially the combined Oratorio Chorale and the Bowdoin College Chorus, which is made up of students, alumni, and faculty and staff members. The four soloists, members of the experimental vocal octet “Roomful of Teeth” included soprano Esteli Gomez, Virginia Warnken, mezzosoprano/ alto, Eric Dudley, tenor, and Dashon Burton, bass-baritone.

William Sheppard, of the class of ‘18 at Bowdoin and Bowdoin Orchestra, performed a trombone solo during the “Tuba mirum spargems sonum” (The trumpet, scattering its awful sound).

All of the soloists, vocal and instrumental, were top flight performers.

This, Emily Isaacson’s second season, appears to be as glittering as the first. Isaacson seems adept at forging new relationships to bring established and emerging talent together in one space. The Mozart Requiem is a case in point, but Isaacson has other surprises up her sleeve for the season to come.