Church of St Jean Baptiste, 76th st and Lexington Avenue, NY; May 23, 2018—On the evening of May 23rd, the now- 60-year-old Clarion Orchestra and Choir gave the last concert of its under-publicized season at the Church of St Jean Baptiste. A major influence on the music of the Baroque and Classical era in the 1960s and ’70s, the group’s low profile is a puzzle: Far from being a boutique company whose entry into the 21st century left their best days behind, they managed a performance of Haydn’s last major work, the Harmoniemesse, which was probably the finest I have ever heard.
The curtain raiser was the composer’s nine-minute, all-choral Te Deum. Two Allegro passages surround a central Adagio. The opening blast is a celebratory C major; a few minutes in the tone becomes more severe with falling, chromatic vocal and string lines before the rollicking “In te Domine speravi” fugue, which was beautifully articulated by all under Maestro Steven Fox.
Haydn’s piety is never gloomy or self-sacrificial, and nowhere is that more true than in his Harmoniemesse, with its full complement of winds, timpani, and organ. The Kyrie’s surprisingly long intro, with its alternating passages of piano and forte, smooths the way for the solo soprano who starts the Gloria like a beacon of light and is followed by the creamier toned alto that opens the swaying Gratias. The solo soprano is back for the Domine Deus and then comes the tenor and bass duet–it’s a perfectly balanced few minutes. The huge Choral entry at Qui tollis is followed by more of the soloists in almost all configurations, rhythmically the same until the In gloria Dei Patris fugue and the bouncy Amen. Haydn chooses to set the Benedictus as a quick-step, as opposed to, say, the Beethovenian model in his Missa solemnis. There is a rousing fanfare before the Dona nobis pacem–Haydn ends on life-affirming religious faith.
Throughout, Steven Fox kept rhythms crucially alert, and his soloists–eight of them, alternating solos–were at his side, vividly front and center. Fine singers one and all, I must single out soprano Jessica Beebe’s work in the Benedictus and bass Joseph Beutel throughout, providing a handsome, dark tone, much like the organ that underpinned much of the music. Instrumentalists–super flautist Sandra Miller and the trio of trumpeters in particular–and the glorious-sounding chorus deserve nothing but praise. The Church was one-third empty–I wonder why the esteemed Clarion Society is hiding its light under a bushel.