Manning Chapel, a space with soaring ceilings and five-star acoustics on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor campus in Belton, was the fitting venue for the university’s Concert Choir on Tuesday. The 34-member singing group and a 14-piece orchestra was conducted by Michelle Roueche in a performance of Magnificat in D major by J.S. Bach.
This piece, composed to wow the public at his new-job debut, is Bach’s setting of the Latin text, Luke I: 46-55, that tells the story of the Virgin Mary. For a composition made up of 12 separate sections, five for chorus, the remainder either solo, duet or a trio of singers, it is remarkably vigorous — Roueche brought in her performance about 25 minutes.
Audience attention-span was as much a concern in Leipzig, Germany, almost 300 years ago as it is today, and Bach is by turns exuberant and dancing, serene and spine-tingling. The bass voice singing about the mightiness of God, the flamboyant flourishes in the three trumpet parts, the 18th century luxury of flutes and the almost cinematic effect of adding voice upon voice culminate in what must have been a brilliant premiere in 1723.
The two soprano parts were sung by sisters Julia and Caroline Brown of Temple. Each shouldered solo duties in separate sustained arias, rejoining the chorus for the fugal movements. These were exposed, technically challenging parts with absolutely nowhere to hide, and both young ladies exceeded expectations.
Ashley Calderon sang the alto solos,
Stephen Ash handled the eighth movement’s demanding tenor solo, and bass Samuel Davis lent his considerable gravity in references to God.
Roueche presented the concert acoustically; no microphones or amplification was used, and the boominess of the empty chapel during rehearsal was dampened by the standing-room-only audience.
The resultant sound was clear and subtle details sparkled; Roueche had a sure command of her singers and the professional orchestra.
Many performances of the Magnificat are accompanied by only a piano and organ, due to expense, extra rehearsal time and the formidable task of balancing instrumental forces — especially true of the three upper register trumpet parts. But Roueche marshaled her forces well and the orchestra complemented rather than competed with the singers. Even with the chapel full of people, there was a noticeable, gratifying lack of audience fidgeting or talking between movements.
“This was much more interesting than I expected,” said Janice Baker, 19, of Killeen. “It had more different aspects than I thought it would, with some really hard singing.”
After an intermission the concert resumed with two 20th century pieces by Part and Ligeti, and a composition by the 17th century Italian Carissimi.
“I actually liked the Bach best,” said Eric North, 20, of Arlington. “There was more variety in the music.”
Manning Chapel will see additional music events soon: The Bell Civic Chorale performs Nov. 11 and the UMHB University Singers appear Nov. 19.