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Bach Festival Society: Morten Lauridsen’s music irradiates Knowles Chapel

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Bach Festival Society of Winter Park performs music by Morten Lauridsen

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Morten Lauridsen, 70, sits on a pew off to the right of Knowles Memorial Chapel’s nave. Eyes closed, head down, his face suggests a degree of perception, not only as the composer of the ethereal choral music being performed onstage, but as a man who possesses a spiritual connection to his art.

Sunday afternoon’s concert, part of the current season of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, was devoted entirely to the music of Lauridsen, one of the most performed and recorded American choral composers. The program was very well varied and balanced, showing different aspects of Lauridsen’s spiritually enlightening scores.

The Rollins College Choir opened with the a cappella piece O Magnum Mysterium. Meticulously conducted by John V. Sinclair, the performance was warm and serene, befitting the biblical text to which the music is set. Sinclair’s handling of the voices was effective and his talented singers responded to subtleties in dynamics, which is essentially what makes or breaks most of Lauridsen’s music.

It was a special touch to have the composer in attendance and sit at the piano for accompaniment, as the organization is known for celebrating the great European composers of the past. Overall, the highlights of the performances were determined by small touches and fluctuations in intensity and phrasing, among the not-so-small choral forces at work. The emotional effect of Lauridsen’s highly metric and cadential music is in the careful execution of climactic episodes and resolutions. Sinclair and choir grabbed every opportunity – swelling up to climaxes and stretching out fermatas at key points – capitalizing on the stirring effects this music can produce when performed well.

Perhaps the finest selection of the program was Nocturnes, a cycle of settings of poems by three poets. The first movement, ‘Sa Nuit d’Ete,’ was particularly captivating. Lauridsen, sitting at the piano, introduced the subtle accompaniment that carries a profound tinge of dissonance.

Nocturnes also features smooth overlaying of melodies, very delicate and subtle, providing a denser texture in certain parts. This was a much needed contrast from Lauridsen’s chiefly homophonic textures. The final piece, Lux Aeterna, is efficient to the extent that it provides a near-perfect soundscape for the oft-used religious text. The orchestration for small ensemble is not much more than a vehicle for the choir, nonetheless, and it’s fully at its mercy, with minor exceptions. The substance of the piece, not surprisingly, is the performance – not so much the writing – of the choral lines, rich in dynamics. The select members of the Bach Festival Choir did not disappoint, under Sinclair’s fluent direction.

For all his glory and ethereal qualities, however, Lauridsen’s music is a tad heavy on treacle and adheres to a harmonic framework that’s a bit too safe and predictable. A great deal of credit goes to Sinclair and company for adding variety to the program, even if not all selections were as strong as the best moments.

To visit Morten Lauridsen’s website, click here.

To read more about the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, and learn about upcoming performances, click here.

To read a review of last November’s performance of Sir Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time by the Bach Festival, click here.

To read a review of last year's performance by the Miró Quartet at the Bach Festival, click here.

To watch a full performance of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, click here.

To watch a performance of the opening of Nocturnes, click here.

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