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Choir makes Walpurgis Night magical.

Byline: CONCERT REVIEW By Marilyn Farwell For The Register-Guard

While the full moon hung in the Eugene sky on Saturday evening, the Eugene Concert Choir brought to the stage Felix Mendelssohn's fantastic setting of Walpurgis Night, the evening before May Day when, supposedly, witches and pagans celebrate spring in the mountains of northern Germany.

Joined by four soloists, the Oregon Mozart Players and Eugene Ballet, the choir presented Mendelssohn's cantata as a semi-opera with lighting, costumes and dancing. The multimedia event closed ECC's season in splendid style.

The first portion of the evening, however, was a hodgepodge of short choral works, arias from the soloists and conductor Diane Retallack's introduction to the main work. The chorus was separated into two sections at either side of the stage, which in the second portion of the concert gave the soloists and dancers the bulk of the stage on which to move.

In the first portion of the program, the sound was surprisingly full as Retallack firmly kept the two groups together in songs by composers Randall Thompson and Eric Whitacre.

As has often been the case, Retallack contracted some impressive soloists. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox has a warm voice that is smooth throughout her range, and she has a winning dramatic flare that she amply displayed with Carmen's "Seguidilla."

The entertaining Constantinos Yiannoudes used his forceful baritone to great dramatic effect in a parlando section from Giaccomo Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and in a Greek tango.

Local singer Brennen Guillory has an exceptional dramatic tenor voice that almost ripped the microphone off its hinges when he sang "Nessun Dorma."

Hung-Yun Chu provided excellent accompaniments for both chorus and soloists.

Retallack has a special affinity for Mendelssohn's work. It was the subject of her doctoral dissertation, and while most of us who write dissertations would as soon forget them, Retallack has returned to hers twice during her tenure as choral director. Her introduction to the work was both informative and necessary.

The text comes from J.W. Goethe's "Die Erste Walpurgisnacht," in which the great German poet speculates on how the folk tradition began.

The poet imagines that pagans, in this case Druids, were pushed back to the mountains by invading Christians. in order to perform their spring rites in peace, the Druids impersonated the demons of Christian mythology to scare away their enemies.

Mendelssohn's music moves from turgid depictions of winter to the light, scherzo music so like his depictions of the fairies in "A Midsummer's Night's Dream."

The costumed soloists took on different characters in the drama: a Druid priest, an old woman, a Christian guard. They - along with a solid bass from the choir, Stephen Vorhes as a Druid guard - made the Walpurgis Night seem like an opera.

Sarah Mattox was particularly affecting in her short role as the old woman. The men all sang with necessary stentorian power, although the unfortunate necessity of microphones greatly enhanced this effect.

With Retallack in the pit instead of the stage, the divided chorus had a few imprecise moments. But on the whole it was admirably convincing as groups of Druids or Christians.

The biggest innovation of the evening, however, was the addition of dance to the mix. Toni Pimble, artistic director of the Eugene Ballet, provided surprisingly fluid choreography considering that the text at times calls for the Druids to take up "prongs and pitchforks."

Almost against type, the women were clothed in diaphanous dresses and the men in plain gray tights and T-shirts. No witches here. The section titled "Chorus of guards of the druids and the heathen people" employed all of the artistic forces; it was mesmerizing.

Retallack displayed her thorough knowledge of the score and admirably kept her myriad forces together.

The Mozart Players sounded exceptional, probably playing more notes in 30 minutes than they had in any one entire concert. At times I thought the tempo should have been quicker, but then I wasn't playing a violin or dancing.

The choir has had a fine season, and next year's programming looks promising. In these difficult economic times, the choir is one of the local artistic institutions that deserves the community's full support.

Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Concert review
Date:May 12, 2009
Words:712
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