The final phrase of Sundays San Juan Symphony concert came down to a quiet prayer for peace: Dona nobis pacem. Soprano Gemma Kavanagh sang her last supplication, then stood still while the combined choirs repeated the word Pacem. With a minimal gesture, Conductor Arthur Post concluded Imant Raminshs Missa Brevis, and for a moment, silence filled the hall.
It was a quiet ending to a musically thrilling concert, not a big finish. The audience sat stunned, but soon a delayed standing ovation changed the atmosphere.
People are creatures of habit, and standing ovations have become the norm. For this concert, with its theme of community, it would have been fine if we just sat quietly together and let the music linger in the air. But Americans must have their standing ovations.
In fairness, Sundays program aimed at largesse, and all the musicians deserve appreciation. Works by Handel, Mendelssohn, Copland and two rarely heard composers, Russian Balakirev and contemporary Latvian-Canadian Raminsh, made Sundays offering a feel-good affair. On the surface, it would be hard to find a theme, but Post is known for his ability to link works under a meaningful umbrella.
In his short stage announcements, Post did just that, especially when 25 young musicians joined the full orchestra for Mendelssohns Wedding March for the annual Side-by-Side concert. Familiar as it is, the orchestral version is different from the organ transcription we all know. The work opens in the trumpet section quite a bald and courageous beginning for co-principals Marc Reed and Halie Silverman plus Brandon Conner from Pierre Vista High School. From there, the music swells, everyones imaginary bride comes down the aisle, and the ceremony continues.
Another familiar work filled the middle of the concert, Aaron Coplands brief Variations on a Shaker Melody. As Post said in his introduction, Its a work that makes us all proud to be Americans.
Flanking these comfortable center pieces, Post programmed two overtures and two closing works. The massed choir performed at the beginning and end.
Handels three-part Coronation Anthem No. 4 is a mini oratorio with a meaningful history. At least one of Handels anthems has been part of a British coronation since 1727. Sung in English, No. 4 began with an energetic and unusual choral fanfare then shifted into a minor-key meditation on Justice and Judgment in the second section. The work concluded with a joyful Alleluia. Kudos to the singers for excellent diction, stunning dynamics and remarkable balance. An auspicious beginning for a concert filled with emotion and energy.
The orchestra introduced listeners to Balakirevs interpretation of Russian folk songs, an interesting counterpart to Coplands Shaker Melody. And by playing only the final movement of Mendelssohns Symphony No. 5, the orchestra focused on the idea of theme-and-variations again, this time with a famous Lutheran hymn. More and more orchestras are playing single, stand-alone movements from famous symphonies, and the choice here fit the context of the whole concert.
Post chose to reverse the order of the printed program and concluded the afternoon with the beautiful Missa Brevis in C minor, by Imant Raminsh. From its barely audible opening plea for mercy in the Kyrie to the breathtaking Dona nobis pacem, the contemporary work reminded us that an ancient form is always capable of renewal and bringing a community together.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.