By Michael Reid
In December of 2003, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (AS0) principle guest conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus stepped out onto one of the biggest stages in the world.
Invited by the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic to perform Benjamin Britten’s "War Requiem,” Runnicles and the chorus weren’t sure of the reception they would get. A philharmonic manager told them the orchestra was looking forward to making music with “the best chorus in America.” The comment drew a few sniggers from the players, as one chorister remembers, “like they [believed] that, if we were the best chorus in America, we couldn’t be that good.”
But at the end of an extended a capella passage, the elite musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic turned as one to stare at the nonprofessional, all-volunteer chorus of schoolteachers, homemakers, cashiers and office workers – and shuffled their feet.
It is the musicians’ applause, a mark of the highest respect from one group of elite musicians to another, and an acknowledgement of Runnicles’ judgment of the ASO Chorus as “arguably the finest chorus in the world.”
Runnicles recently returned to Atlanta to show off his mastery of vocal music, conducting the renowned ASO Chorus, along with soprano Kiera Duffy; mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor; and baritone Edward Parks in three works by French composers – Claude Debussy’s “La damoiselle élue,” Olivier Messiaen’s “Les offrandes oubliées” and Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem.”
The evening began with French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 1930 symphonic mediation on sin, suffering and redemption. Divided into three sections – “The Cross,” “The Sin” and “The Eucharist” – the piece reflects the then 22-year-old composer’s ardent religious faith: “The first idea I wished to express – and the most important, because it stands above them all – is the existence of the truths of the Catholic faith.”
Soprano Duffy, mezzo-soprano O’Connor and the women of the ASO Chorus then joined Runnicles in Claude Debussy’s cantata “La damoiselle élue,” a French translation of the 1850 poem “The Blessed Damozel” by the English pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti “The Blessed Damozel” depicts a young woman in heaven waiting to be joined by her still-living lover. Duffy, O’Connor and the chorus weave slow, lyrical passages that emphasize the chorus’s ability to harmonize with the orchestra, to, in effect, become a subtle 92-voice wind instrument.
The highlight of the evening though saw baritone Edward Parks and the men of the chorus join in Maurice Duruflé’s powerful “Requiem.” Nothing soft or lyrical here; Durfulé’s 1947 setting of the Gregorian Mass of the Dead is at times somber and funereal, at times ringingly transcendent. Passages of slow introspection give way to passionate crescendos that showcase the chorus’s and soloists’ powerful virtuosity and musicality and leave the audience understanding that Runnicles is right: This is “arguably the finest chorus in world.”
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra season continues through July 28. The ASO Chorus can be heard again on Friday, July 5, in “An All-American Celebration with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra” at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park.
Top photo by J.D. Scott; bottom photo by Jeff Roffman
Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau guest blogger Michael Reid is a tour guide for Atlanta Culinary Tours.