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STANDING ROOM ONLY: Choral guru whips students into near-professional-sounding ensemble

It’s not often you get to attend a standing-room-only classical concert in Kansas City. So many choral fans showed up for the thrilling rendering of Brahms’ German Requiem at the UMKC Conservatory’s White Hall, featuring mega-conductor Joseph Flummerfelt and Conservatory forces, that the house managers left the entrances open so that the throng of overflow audience could hear the performance from the foyer. I can’t think of a better event for folks to clamor to. Flummerfelt — retired Westminster Choir College professor, longtime director of choruses for the New York Philharmonic, and podium powerhouse — had more than 200 college students sounding like angels. He had come to campus for a 10-day residency, which culminated in this suave, vibrant, sculpted performance of Brahms’ 75-minute German-language masterpiece.

From the first bars of the opening “Blessed are they that have sorrow,” we knew we were in for a ride. The Flummerfelt choral sound is fresh, bright, flexible on the surface with a firmly muscled soulfulness underneath. How he manages to craft such a creamy, beautifully balanced sound in just a few days is a wonder. (Credit also goes to UMKC choral wizards Ryan Board, Charles Robinson and Sarin Peck, who prepared the groups for weeks in anticipation of Flummerfelt’s arrival.) If I yearned for a bit more crackling tension in the spiky opening of “For all flesh is as grass,” I got major goose-flesh (pardon the pun) from the three gigantic climaxes in which the choir burst forth in a scary-fortissimo with St. Peter’s stern words on the transitory nature of life. This is one of the shining moments in all choral music, and on Friday it definitely sounded like it.

Raymond Feener displayed a well-grounded baritone in “Lord, let me know,” with a convincing urgency to reflect the song’s yearning for comfort. Soprano Rebecca Sherburn sang with fine pathos in the “You now have sorrow” solo; her voice sometimes had a hard edge but the choral backdrop was lush and gentle. “For we have no abiding city” is the German Requiem’s stentorian warning-cry about the last trumpet and God’s victory over death. (At the risk of being dubbed a philistine, I’ve always found the latter part of this movement somewhat drawn-out, almost as if an excess of text forced things to go on longer than musical logic would dictate; Friday’s performance did not change my view.) By the celestial finale, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,” I found myself pondering what a feat it is to sustain musical and emotional energy at this level for 75 minutes; conductor and musicians seemed as fresh as when they’d started.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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