Arts & Events

Philharmonia Baroque’s All-Mozart Choral Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday October 09, 2018 - 11:25:00 AM

From Wednesday, October 3 through Sunday, October 7, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale presented concerts throughout the Bay Area of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s early religious music. Included on this program were Litaniae Lauretanae, K. 195, Exsultate jubilate, K. 165, and the Mass No. 15 in C Major, K. 317 “Coronation.” I attended Saturday’s concert at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church.  

Led by Nicholas McGegan, who just announced that he’ll be stepping down as the company’s Music Director at the end of the 2020 season, Philharmonia Baroque gave a splendid performance of Mozart’s early religious music. Two of the three works presented here were written to be performed in Salzburg’s churches. If, as is well known, Mozart was champing at the bit in the tight-fisted regime of Archbishop Colloredo, you’d never guess it from these devotional works in which Mozart displayed his versatile command of older “ecclesiastical” styles as well as the “brilliant” style of opera and the concerto. Opening the concert was Litaniae Lauretanae, or Loretan Litanies, a work so-named in reference to the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy. Dynamic contrasts abound in this work, which was most likely premiered in Salzburg Cathedral in May, 1774. The Chorale, led by Bruce Lamott, sings the opening notes of the Kyrie in hushed tones, only to burst forth in the Allegro section. Chorale sections tend to be sung forte, while sections sung by soloists tend to be piano. Soprano Camille Ortiz sang softly and sweetly her solo in the Sancta Maria. Vocal fireworks abound in the Regina Angelorum and Agnus Dei sections. Tenor James Reese nimbly navigated a vocal line that nearly spans two octaves in the former, and soprano Camille Ortiz displayed her impressive range in the latter, especially in a beautiful a capella passage. The hushed closing of the Litanies is entirely in keeping with the penitential tone of the text. 

Next on the program was Mozart’s much loved Exsultate jubilate, a work written in Milan for the famed castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. First performed in Milan on January 17, 1773, Exsultate jubilate shows off the soprano voice most extravagantly. Lengthy passages of coloratura abound, and here Camille Ortiz excelled. If her soft and sweet singing in the Litaniae Lauretanae initially made us wonder if Ortiz possessed the power to do justice to the extreme demands of Exsultate jubilate, any doubt was swiftly erased, as Ortiz lit into the virtuosic running passages of the opening section. Likewise, her a capella singing closing out the opening section was breathtakingly gorgeous. Exsultate jubilate’s middle section offers a lyrical melody that soars above a gentle bass line, with sighing figures in the strings. The work closes with the wondrous Alleluja music repeated endlessly, beautifully sung here by Camille Ortiz. 

After intermission, Philharmonia Baroque Orhestra and Chorale performed Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass in C Major, K. 317. This work was first performed in Salzburg Cathedral on April 4, 1779. It was written by Mozart shortly after his return from Paris, and it shows the influence of his encounter with the famed Mannheim Orchestra, which was known for its highly expressive dynamic contrasts. Here the opening Kyrie is announced by the woodwinds, punctuated by trumpets and timpani, who play forte/piano/crescendo as the chorus delivers an assertive “Kyrie.” Mozart’s music in this Mass displays a sensitive understanding of the text, as is evidenced by the sorrowful Cricifixus and the hushed mystery of the Et incarnatus est. The lovely soprano solo of the Agnus Dei has been identified by scholars as a precursor to the aria “Dove sono” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Here this solo was elegantly sung by Camille Ortiz. Mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle and Bass-baritone Dashon Burton were excellent in supporting roles. They may not have had much opportunity to sing, but they made the most of what was offered. The Chorale, led by Bruce Lamott, was excellent in the C Major Mass, as throughout the concert; and conductor Nicholas McGegan led the orchestra in a taut, precise interpretation of these early religious compositions of Mozart.