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Porco Leads Fitting Xavier Tribute

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 30, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

   Who says they don't do anything new at Music Hall?
   Three of the four works performed on Friday night's Cincinnati Symphony concert at Music Hall had not been heard on CSO subscription concerts before.
   The fourth, J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068, though familiar enough, is rarely heard at Music Hall because of the hall's size (3,516 seats).
   Thanks go to May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, whose gifts are as well utilized on the podium as they are behind the scenes preparing his chorus for other conductors.
   The program, which was dedicated to Xavier University in honor of its 175th anniversary, included, fittingly enough, Benjamin Britten's rarely heard "Cantata academica," written for the 500th anniversary of the University of Basel in Switzerland.
   Also heard were "Five Mystical Songs" by Ralph Vaughan Williams based on texts by 17th-century Metaphysical poet George Herbert and providing ecumenical balance, Mass No. 2 in G Major by Franz Schubert.
   It was an evening suffused in beauty and reflection, however rarefied it might have been for some tastes. Friday night CSO audiences may be small, but they are typically knowledgeable, and this one was no exception, listening attentively and making their appreciation known with a warm response at the end.
   They had much to appreciate. In addition to the 140-voice May Festival Chorus, there was a quartet of fine soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, tenor Stanford Olsen and baritone William McGraw.
   To have heard McGraw in the Vaughan Williams would have been worth the price of a ticket by itself. Faculty artist at the University of College-Conservatory of Music, McGraw is one of Cincinnati's vocal treasures and his bronze-edged, empathic voice seemed the perfect vessel for the composer's lush music and poet Herbert's verses about Divine Love.
   McGraw soared in "Easter," which Porco capped with a soft ascent in the strings, and he enriched the radiant, parallel harmonies of "I Got Me Flowers." In "Love Bade Me Welcome," a metaphor of unconditional love, he sounded humanity's acceptance over soft humming by the chorus and he gave the folksong-like "The Call" a joyous ring.
   Britten's "Cantata academica," a two-part rendition of Basel's Latin charter, was a genuine delight, mixing serial techniques with "Joy to the World" moments, as in fanfare-like opening, with its staggered brass figures. Olsen (a CCM graduate) was a standout here, in both declamatory and lyrical moments, while Robinson and O'Connor rendered a tuneful, nimble tribute to the university's founder. Porco led with relish and kept the music punchy and pithy at the same time. Britten's orchestration, with contributions by percussion, harp and piano, added immensely to the enjoyment of the work, which the CSO players seemed to enjoy in equal measure.
   Schubert's early Mass showcased the mettle of the chorus, which carved the lines of the "Credo" with conviction and the "Sanctus" with great skill and precision. A real beauty here, too, was the final, plaintive "Agnus Dei," with O'Connor, McGraw and the chorus.
   Bach's Suite got a stylish, idiomatic reading with a reduced orchestra, rapid tempos and mostly minimal vibrato by the strings. Porco, as on previous concerts, showed himself a superb Bach conductor, leading the CSO with animation and colorful gestures. Music Hall's cavernous interior diluted the effect now and then, especially by the violins, whose important lines, as in the Overture, were sometimes difficult to hear. The trumpets were a joy, however, since baroque music is a rarity on CSO concerts. As if to compensate for their earlier eclipsing, the famous Air - for strings alone - wafted gracefully into the hall.
   The chorus paid tribute to Xavier after intermission with an a capella performance of the school's "Alma Mater."
   The concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post Oct. 30, 2006)