Concert-goers got a chance to hear one of Rochester's newest local choral organizations last weekend when First Inversion gave a strong performance of a demanding program at Downtown United Presbyterian Church. If the January 23 performance is any indication, First Inversion will be a strong addition to the musical culture of the city.
The First Inversion ensemble was founded and is conducted by Lee Wright, director of music ministry at Downtown Presbyterian Church. Its members include both professional and non-professional singers, and the size of the ensemble varies depending on the music being performed. Friday night the group numbered 45, but many smaller groups were pulled from the larger group to provide variety among the program's pieces -- men's chorus, women's chorus, and soloist, singing a cappella or accompanied by piano and organ.
The program's opening work, Brahms' "Warum" ("Why?") tells of songs breathing warmth from the heavens down on us, and First Inversion performed it with a full-voiced sound, warm phrasing, excellent German diction, and an energy that started the concert with a fresh-sounding vitality. This is a difficult task to pull off in the performance space of a large church or cathedral: the text of the vocal lines can be easily lost in the reverberance of the space. But this was not the case here.
The major work on the program was the Mass for Double Chorus by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901), whose lasting influence was as a teacher, not a composer. This was a rare opportunity to hear a work that is performed infrequently, and I have never come across it myself.
As a setting of the Catholic Mass, it reflects the great and old traditions of the sung mass. This one was written in the late 19th century, making its harmonies richer, warmer, and less austere than in early church music. First Inversion presented it beautifully throughout the six movements, moving effortlessly between sections and exercising a wide range of dynamics and blended tone. If I were to pick out a single movement for special mention, it would be the "Gloria," for its sheer full sound. The only slight concern about this work, and this is a small one, was a tendency for the choral sound, although beautiful, to remain the same regardless of the text.
The accompaniment by pianist Orlando Diaz and organist Jason Cloen enhanced the group's performance. And in Franz Schubert's "Serenade," mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sharonov gave a delightful portrayal of the flirting girl to the amorous attentions of the Men's Chorus.
Max Reger's piece "Comfort" was the surprise of the evening for me. Reger's early 20th century style is generally angular, sharp, and arresting. This song was nothing like that, providing comfort and consolation with hushed tones and long sustained lines.
In all, this was a rewarding performance, a warm, comforting way to spend a cold January night. Applause must go to Lee Wright for providing us with a choral ensemble of real value. This is an organization that needs the support of the community, and unfortunately the attendance was slight, perhaps two in the audience for every one singer on the stage.
First Inversion's next performance is April 24 and 25 at Downtown United Presbyterian Church in a program with a completely different perspective: "Spirituals and Folk Songs."