IU choral students meet the challenges of Honegger’s oratorio

Music review: ‘King David’

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer | pjacobi@heraldt.com © HTO

The choral element in this year’s Summer Music round of concerts has been, as often in recent years, limited: to a single concert. This year’s single event was handed to Walter Huff, the Indiana University Opera Theater’s director of choruses and the Jacobs School of Music’s professor of choral conducting.

He chose Arthur Honegger’s 1921 concert oratorio “King David” (“Le roi David”), formally subtitled “Symphonic Psalm for Vocal Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra,” to give his registered summer choral students something both challenging and different to do. The result of Maestro Huff’s choice was heard on Saturday evening by a receptive audience that filled Auer Hall. That result was noteworthy. The good-sized crowd that showed up had an opportunity to hear a work not often, one might even say rarely, available to devotees of choral music in the 21st century. For the singers and supporting instrumental musicians, a string-less band of them, the opportunity was to experience the preparation for and performance of a work most of them probably hadn’t even heard of.

The audience appeared to appreciate their exposure to the oratorio; listeners were coughlessly silent while listening and, when the performance was done, effusively approving. The performers offered a reading marked by generous proportions of energy and enthusiasm.

The Swiss-born Frenchman Honegger (1892-1955) is known for having expressed himself in music of various sorts, spanning the centuries from Bach and the Baroque to the late Romantic effusions of Richard Strauss and Mahler, from the subtleties of Impressionism to bold use of contemporary tricks of the trade. The ingredients came from those Honegger studied, suggesting the eclectic, but the ways in which he packaged his compositions gave the music a personal stamp. So it is with “King David.” The life story of the Biblical David contains adventure enough, and the libretto by Rene Morax covers that life inclusively, from childhood to death, rich fodder for the music to enhance.

Honegger’s score contains a vast array of tonal effects, from moments mysteriously soft to climaxes that were mighty, almost uncomfortably so. Huff kept full control of the 36-member chorus, of the nine soloists taken from within the chorus for extra duty, and of the 18-member orchestra.

As a whole, the chorus sounded well endowed, capable of meeting whatever the demands of the composer and of the conductor. The soloists, when separated from the full chorus, came forth courageously, some more successfully than others, but all steeped in what Honegger gave them and what Huff asked them to do. The orchestra took possession of the musical ideas Honegger left for a body of instrumentalists to complete; this body did just that in excellent fashion.

Tying all together was a narrator to tell the story that prompted the music. Zachary Coates, a doctoral candidate in the Jacobs School, handled that task superbly, tasking a spoken voice graced with flexibility to interpret the Biblical content and fueled by the heat, the drama in that content. The microphone was powerful enough to collaborate with Coates’ ample voice so everything could be distinctly heard. Bravo to that! But when his voice reached beyond a certain level of loudness, unfortunately, the mic tended to bark, to woof back. It wasn’t the narrator’s fault but that of the electronic instrument called upon to serve. Fortunately, the story still was well told and a critically important factor in the success of the concert.

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