ASO review: Runnicles leads orchestra, chorus in poignant, all-French tribute to Neil Williams

Donald Runnicles

By Mark Gresham

On Thursday in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a concert of all-French music by Messiaen, Debussy and Duruflé, led by Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, with soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and baritone Edward Parks as guest vocal soloists. The concert will be performed again this evening.

It is dedicated to the memory of L. Neil Williams Jr., a longtime Atlanta arts community leader and ASO supporter who died suddenly last August. An insert to the program contained a page-long, personal and deeply heartfelt tribute to Williams from Runnicles.

The concert opened with Messiaen’s “Les offrandes oubliées” (“The Forgotten Offerings”). Written at age 22, it was his first orchestral work to be publicly performed. The last time the ASO performed it was 10 years ago, also under Runnicles’ baton. The work is steeped in ecstatic Catholic mysticism, as well as influenced by Messiaen’s synesthesia — a neurological condition in which he would hear sounds and simultaneously see them as colors.

The work’s three parts are connected without pause. The outer, wistfully slow sections are titled “The Cross” and “The Eucharist” (both “forgotten offerings” from God to humankind); the ferocious middle section is “The Sin” (simply, “the forgetting of God”). The work’s final, gossamer chord was played so softly that it was almost inaudible. Runnicles then held his closed right hand still for a carefully extended silence before the audience began to applaud. Even more amazing: nobody coughed.

Debussy’s cantata “La damoiselle élue,” for treble chorus with soprano and mezzo-soprano solos, is based on the poem “The Blessed Damozel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as translated into French. It describes a damsel looking down from heaven upon her lover, yearning for their reunion in the celestial afterlife.

If anyone’s voice could be compared to a well-played clarinet, it would be O’Connor’s, which one might say has its own chalumeau register that is rich and dark, which smokes and smolders all the more when she gets into its lower extremes. Here and with the “Pie Jesu” of Duruflé’s Requiem, which followed intermission, her parts were not as extensive as they were important to each work. O’Connor’s sung narration, alternating with the light treble chorus, set the framework for Duffy’s longer role as the damsel.

Duffy is better known for the gleaming high end of her range in both Baroque and contemporary music, and in this instance her light lower register had to compete several times with Debussy’s orchestration, despite its relative transparency. If O’Connor’s voice is like a clarinet, Duffy’s is like a flute, which picks up its characteristic brightness and presence as she moves upward from the middle to high registers. The women of the ASO Chorus sang well the co-narrative treble chorus part.

It’s surprising that the ASO and Chorus had not performed Duruflé’s Requiem since 1985, when it was performed for the first time by them that February, led by William Fred Scott. It was performed again that November, led by Robert Shaw, after which they recorded it for Telarc together with the more frequently performed Requiem of Gabriel Fauré. Since its premiere two-thirds of a century ago, Duruflé’s Requiem has been acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the choral repertoire, whether performed with one of the two available orchestrations or with organ alone.

Gregorian chants, drawn exclusively from the Catholic funeral Mass, wrapped in a luxuriant harmonic texture influenced in part by Debussy, Fauré and Messiaen, are amalgamated into a distinctive work with a powerful personal signature. But Duruflé’s is not an over-the-top dramatic piece like the Requiems of Verdi and Berlioz. It has its loud, broad moments, but very few compared with the majority of pieces of devotional nature. The chorus was at its best in those sections where the forceful took a back seat to the transparent — the contrapuntal “Kyrie” and the “Lux aeterna” come to mind first.

Again, O’Connor excelled in the brief but poignant “Pie Jesu.” Parks got two opportunities to solo, both more declamatory in character than lyrical (as baritones or bass-baritones often seem typecast in Requiems). Most of the work fell to the chorus, with the orchestra in its supportive role.

Interestingly, all three works on the program concluded quietly. None ended with a bang but, while softly, neither did they end with a whimper.