A capacity audience jammed into every available seat in the Tabernacle on Friday night (and one assumes on Saturday too), to enjoy Obert C. and Grace Tanner's fourth biennial Gift of Music, and to ecstatically greet Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, a soprano of silvery tone and sterling artistry. Nor did anyone seem in the least put out by a program of 19th century chestnuts.
Indeed, save for two, none of the composers represented even lived into the 20th century. (That's counting William Clayton as the composer of "Come Come Ye Saints," not LeRoy Robertson, whose appealing arrangement of this immortal Mormon hymn the choir sang beautifully.)However, many considerations beyond the live concert were riding on this selection: a PBS special for nationwide distribution during coming Easter seasons, and hopefully a hit recording for London Decca Records; so apparently this was deemed the proper time to play it safe. And if hoary chestnuts we must have, may they always be as lovingly and skillfully handled as they were in this concert.
The charming Te Kanawa quickly showed why she's a star of the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and many other international houses. Her presence, beauty and communicative powers, coupled with a beguiling, shimmering tone quality and easeful delivery, made her every appearance a small occasion. Her control is admirable, and she's as likely to climax a song with a floating pianissimo as with a fortissimo - a much harder thing to do. The voice carries well and filled the hall, even when she sang softly.
In solo, Te Kanawa sang "O Divine Redeemer" by Gounod lightly yet with conviction and gave the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" a lovely, limpid interpretation. Her voice is of ideal weight for Mendelssohn, and she joined the choir to excellent effect in his hymn of supplication, "Hear My Prayer."
To the stirring Easter Hymn from "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Mascagni, both choir and soloist, urged on by conductor Julius Rudel, gave pulsating life. Turning to the Viennese style, Te Kanawa and the women of the choir sang the Nuns' Chorus from "Casanova" by J. Strauss - an operetta waltz with soaring obligato, which if memory serves used to be popular with sopranos at mid-century. "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain," delivered with communicative intensity, completed Te Kanawa's conquest of Salt Lake City.
However, one must wonder why she held music on several of these songs, songs that many of us can hum from memory. This was truly a pretty easy concert for a world-class soprano, and one did wish for at least one of the arias that have made her famous.
An operatic talent also held the baton for this concert, as Julius Rudel brought a dramatic dimension to music for orchestra alone and for choir and orchestra. Especially rousing was the joyous prelude to Act II of "Lohengrin." And he drew from the choir in "Va pensiero," from Verdi's "Nabucco," the sort of spirited vitality that made it believable as a rallying cry for revolutionary Italians of the composer's day.
The Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's "Tannhauser" was so magically spun out by the men of the choir that it seemed fresh-minted, and the Hallelujah from Beethoven's "Mount of Olives" had a golden, exultant sheen. Indeed, the choir sounded tonally thrilling and beautifully disciplined, though the demands upon it this winter, including its inaugural appearances, have been almost superhuman. Conductor Jerold Ottley deserves much credit for its good estate.