The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Summer Choir again proves impressive. But how good is the music of Saint-Saens? Was he an under-achiever?

July 12, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Usually when I go to concerts, I focus on composers and the music, not so much on the performers.

But there are some exceptions, cases where I admire the performers much more than the music or the composer.

One such case for me is the music of Alexander Scriabin, especially  his middle and late periods. I have never been as attracted to the “Black Mass” or “White Mass” sonatas as to Vladimir Horowitz’s sometimes amazing performances of those works. I have similar reactions to the solo piano works of Ligeti and Messiaen.

Recently I heard another more large-scale example that was vocal as well as instrumental: The Requiem, Op. 54, by the 19th century French composer Camille Saint-Saens (below).

The occasion was the third annual free concert on June 29 by the Summer Choir (below) under founder and conductor Ben Luedcke.

It was an impressive and first-rate performance. For background about the choir, which is quickly establishing itself as a summer event in Madison, here is a link:

As for the big  Saint-Saens work, which filled the entire second half of the concert, the work could not make up its mind whether it wanted to be a Verdi knockoff, with big operatic gestures and drama, or a Faure knockoff, with a more quiet attitude towards death and final rites.

I thought the choir, the soloists (bel0w) and the pickup orchestra did an excellent job of performing this rarely heard score. But now I understand why it is rarely heard. It is so truncated. Just as it seems to get going, it drops off, making the whole piece choppy and very frustrating to the listener.

I’ll admit it. I was disappointed. I have long considered Saint-Saens to be one of the most underrated and underperformed composers. I still feel that way, if you look at some of his other compositions.

For example, I still think his piano concertos deserve more performances; his “Organ” Symphony is pretty well-known as is his “Carnival of the Animals.” You can also find other things to praise, including excerpts from the opera “Samson and Delilah.” Then there are the piano trios and string quartets as well as the Cello Sonatas Violin Sonatas.

But after hearing the Requiem, I am afraid I have to revise my long-held impression. I now see Saint-Saens as one of the most disappointing prodigies in the history of classical music. He is said to have been a prodigy on the order of Mozart and Mendelssohn. He now seems to me an under-achiever.

Perhaps that is why the most impressive part of the Summer Choir concert seemed to me to be the first half, which included some lovely a cappella works and used only piano accompaniment performed by the outstanding pianist Mitchell Patton (below).

The “Remembrance of Things Past” program had music that was interesting and varied, and included a wonderfully poignant version of a Canadian folk song “A Wandering Canadian”; “How-ever Glass,” an unusual and effective vocal work with sound painting by UW alumnus Scott Gendel (below top); and a terrific song (“Come to Me, My Love”) by Norman Dello Joio (below bottom).

The sound of the chorus itself was impressive. Luedcke goes for a big, rich and solid sound that has great dynamic contrasts between various sections of the choir. Little wonder than the summer-clad crowd rewarded the performers with thunderous applause and a standing ovation (below).

So despite the disappointment of the Saint-Saens, I very much look forward to next summer’s concert by the Summer Choir.

Did you hear the Saint-Saens Requiem?

What did you think of the work?

What did you think of the performers and the performance? Of the concert overall?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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