Robert Shaw knows what to do with the big choral pieces

What are the big choral pieces really for, including the ones called requiems? Are they for an occasional dusting off, followed by performances memorable above all for reverence and for the stunning climaxes?

Or are they, now more urgently than ever, vehicles not only for the prayers but for speaking out, for the giving of questions and receiving of answers?

Robert Shaw has known what they are for every since he graduated from Fred Waring's organization in the mid- '40s and led Americans to a new choral standard. He has in late years taken that knowledge into his work with the Atlanta Symphony and Symphony Chorus. Not long ago he came north with three prime examples of it -- the requiems of Verdi, Berlioz, and Brahms -- and filled Carnegie Hall with them on three successive evenings.

It was a time for redefinition.

Each work, written at the still-developing maturity of its composer's career, came across as pertinently as any question-and-answer column in the daily paper.

The most striking instances were in the Brahms, using not the liturgical text of the two others but the composer's carefully chosen sequence of biblical passages. In the sixth movement (as in the third), the impressive baritone Tom Krause, singing without a book, arms by his side, brooded at first over dark visions of mortality: "Here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come" (Heb. 13:14). Then he took the chorus with him into the "mystery" of I Corinthians 15, and they fairly shouted the huge questions: "O death, where is thy sting? O hell [as Luther's Bible has it] where is thy victory?

And for the rest of the number of chorus confirms triumphantly (to translate literally Luther's Revelation 4:11): "Lord, thou art worthy to receive praise and honor and strength, for you have created all things, and through your will they have substance and are created."

Mr. Krause, who traditionally would have sat down, stayed standing, listening hard to Mr. Shaw's superbly concerted forces, the questioner getting his answer. This was infinitely more than music to mourn by.

The two other requiems, though very different constituted, worked with comparable urgency as they thrust their words and music against the limits of mortality so as to surpass them with love, contrition, longing, awe, and sheer astonishment. Verdi, who touched on mortality in most of his operas, here musters everything dramatic in the effort to broach its frontier. Mr. Shaw's remarkably melded orchestra and chorus (with well over 250 singers, and almost half men) ranged with apparent ease from a nearly absolute hush (sometimes laced with "SSSSSS" sounds) to the cosmic thunderclap of "Dies Irae" and the brassy clangor of "Tuba Mirum."

But the Verdi should take direction from its soloists as well, and while Mr. Shaw's quartet -- Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Elizabeth Mannion, Seth McCoy, and John Cheek -- performed capably, except for some passages of Mr. McCoy's they did not really bite in dramatically. Mr. Shaw does not work for a particularly "Italian" dramatic lyricism in this work, or for the driving, nasal intensity sometimes found in French performances of the Berlioz. Yet his own assimilated sense of the word, the note, and the idea invites and deserves almost continual excitement in these pieces.

In the Berlioz it speaks most particularly through chorus and orchestra, whispering, imploring, castigating in the flailing beat of the "Lacrymosa," dropping from cataclysm to a dark buzz of mystery in the "Dies Irae." For the "Tuba Mirum" Mr. Shaw turned around to conduct his ringing brass consensus in the balconies. From the highest of them, also, dropped down Mr. McCoy's single tenor solo for the "Sanctus." Though sounding a little detached, it became splendidly dramatic as the chorus sand back its "Hosanna in excelsis."

Yes, such pieces as these have work to do, in putting for us some big and close and searing questons and at least opening room for equivalent answers, with their peaks and valleys.

The same is not true, I'm afraid, for a new piece by Philip Rhodes for soprano and orchestra that shared the third evening with the Brahms. "The Lament of Michal" is a technically admirable work describing the distress of David's first wife, the daughter of Saul. Miss Bryn-Julson handled expertly its constant atonal angularity (better than she did the floating line of Brahm's fifth movement, "You now have sorrow"). But this idiom offers even an experienced listener no real route to follow, no continuing line, no direction for feeling. We're used to the brambly texture in such music: It's part of the language, and sometimes gleams with light. Beatitude, coming right afterward, never sounded more marvelously mobile. For all my repeated hearings, thiw was in its own way the new music of the evening.

Speaking of Beatitudes, Cesar Franck took them all as his subject and built them into a dramatic work for chorus, soloists, and symphony orchestra that has recently been given a rare and most interesting performance by the St. George's Choral Society, under Calvin Hampton. Franck spent 10 years with the many-faceted libretto of Josephine Blanche Colomb, and I have an idea that the result got rather smoothered in dull, reverential performances by English 19 th-century oratorio societies.

Each Beatitude is set in a lively context of human need, and the whole give-and-take of it, while sometimes uneven, shapes up as another work of exciting and urgent insight for today. "Blessed are the peacemakers," for instance, is prefaced by Satan, roiling the multitude: "Furious enemies, contend for the earth -- ('Hate, vengeance, and war!" 'Glory to the victors!') . . . The sole law in life is the law of the strongest. . . . Blessed are the powerful!" And Frank's redolent, ingenious music is a full match for a pungent and pertinent text.

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