William Fazekas, ClevelandClassical.com — May 11, 2009
Several weeks a year, for the past five years, Clevelanders have been given wonderful treats — fine concerts of orchestral music performed free of charge and brought to venues in their own neighborhoods. Oh, and with “Clevelanders”, it seems we can include our neighbors in Lorain and Lake counties, as well as urban and suburban Cuyahoga. I’m speaking, of course, about CityMusic Cleveland, which celebrated its five year run of free neighborhood concerts this week with a program it called Heaven & Earth, including Mozart’s 'Jupiter' Symphony (No. 41 in C, K.551), and Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G. As always, the program was repeated at half a dozen venues in the course of the week; this reviewer caught the performance Saturday evening at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.
When CityMusic was founded in 1995, the role of Music Director was taken on by 26-year-old James Gaffigan, then Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. In the intervening years, the path of an aspiring young conductor has taken Mr. Gaffigan to California, to accept the post of Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. However, he has continued his work with CityMusic and still returns to Cleveland to lead most of the programs. Mr. Gaffigan’s conducting style can be summed up as “sprightly” — he favors brisk tempos, especially in traditionally “slow” movements (a la Toscanini), and crisp articulations. His performance of the 'Jupiter' was true to character: the Andante cantabile had a throbbing intensity and drive throughout, and the Menuetto kept a genuinely danceable pace. After five years of performing in the beautiful but resonant acoustics of St. Stanislaus, so different from the dry acoustics of the modern concert hall, Mr. Gaffigan has learned how to lead his orchestra to deliver those crisp articulations, which he did, especially in the brisk fugue in the Finale.
Heaven & Earth was billed as five-year anniversary celebration, and for the second half CityMusic was joined by the 20-voice Quire Cleveland, directed by Peter Bennett, which has yet to taste its first birthday cake. In the past year, Quire Cleveland has presented several programs of a capella choral music from the Renaissance, but in the Schubert mass, these accomplished local singers proved themselves equally at home in the late Classical style. Solo parts in the Schubert were given fine performances by soprano Chabrelle Williams and tenor Roy Hage (both students at Oberlin College, but already demonstrating professional poise), and baritone Matthew Hayward. Ms. Williams and Mr. Hayward had especially beautiful moments together, as a duet in the Gloria and with alternating solos in the passionate Agnus Dei.
Compared with the better known orchestral masses of Haydn and Mozart, the Mass in G (written in 1815 for the church of Lichtental, where Schubert was a parishioner) is a modest, subdued work. The “wordy” movements — the Gloria and the surprisingly subdued Credo — come off as perfunctory expositions of text. Only in the later movements — especially the fugal setting of 'Hosanna in excelsis' in the Sanctus and the lyrical Benedictus — does Schubert give room for more musical and interpretive expression. The Benedictus is a trio for the soloists, and unfortunately in that movement Mr. Gaffigan’s penchant for swift andantes, which served him so well in the 'Jupiter', merely kept the music from achieving its lyrical potential.
The forces and conditions of this performance (chamber orchestra and choir, high-ceilinged reverberant church), were perhaps very similar to the ones Schubert would have had for the premiere of the Mass in G, and the baroque space of St. Stanislaus glittered with his music. CityMusic has developed quite a strong following, and the approximately 700 people in attendance nearly filled the large church. An encore after a performance of a choral mass doesn’t seem like an obvious choice, but Mr. Gaffigan returned to the podium to lead the forces in Mozart’s beloved, gem-like setting of Ave verum corpus — especially beloved, it appears, by Mr. Gaffigan himself, who played it not once through but twice.