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Exhilarating Haydn and Mozart from Highland Park Chorale and Orchestra

The Dallas Arts District was hopping Saturday night, with performances at the Meyerson Symphony Center, Winspear Opera House and Moody Performance Hall. It’s a pity few people on the sidewalks headed to the Moody, where particularly exhilarating music making awaited.

The Moody concert was presented by the Highland Park Chorale and Orchestra, an extension of the music program at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Along with the familiar Mozart Symphony No. 39 it included a rarely performed but quite spirited Haydn Mass in B-flat. The latter is nicknamed the Creation Mass for a brief musical quotation from the composer’s oratorio The Creation.

Coordinated and conducted by Greg Hobbs, the church’s music director, the Highlander Concert Series has presented music both familiar (the Verdi Requiem) and far less known (English composer Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi), at both Moody and the Meyerson as well as the church. The 2022-2023 season promises Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the Brahms Requiem and Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms.

Concerts like these draw on the area’s pool of freelance musicians. Excellent standards among them were certainly evident in the 31 singers and 34 instrumentalists performing Saturday night. (Some of the singers presumably came from the church choir, but I also spotted some familiar choral freelancers.)

Members of the Highland Park Chorus sing during a performance at Moody Performance Hall in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, September 17, 2022. (Emil Lippe / Special Contributor)

North Texas has long nurtured a rich choral culture. Even by those standards, Hobbs’ group Saturday produced particularly exciting choral singing. The sound was well balanced and focused, clear and boldly projected.

Haydn gave both singers and instrumentalists plenty to enjoy. With only a few solemn moments, this is predominately happy music. The Kyrie doesn’t so much pray for mercy as celebrate its promise. The Agnus Dei is more traditionally introspective, but then it virtually demands peace in an exuberant fugue. The reverent Incarnation episode of the Credo includes a chirpy little organ part, which was played on a small cabinet organ.

While the chorus sang with minimal vibrato, the four soloists — soprano Jennifer Wheeler, mezzo Claire Shackleton, tenor Ben Caston and baritone David Grogan — favored more operatic approaches. Wheeler dispatched gleaming high notes, and Caston and Grogan supplied admirably matched vocal sinew. I’d have preferred a little less metal and vibrato in the alto part.

Hobbs summoned energy and enthusiasm from his forces, without slighting introspective passages. The results were thrilling.

Conductor Greg Hobbs directs the Highland Park Chorale and Orchestra at Moody Performance...
Conductor Greg Hobbs directs the Highland Park Chorale and Orchestra at Moody Performance Hall in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, September 17, 2022. (Emil Lippe / Special Contributor)

The Mozart began with a bit less focus and direction, but it certainly came alive for the first movement Allegro, as it did in the finale. Phrases in the Andante con moto were nicely tapered, and the Menuetto properly danced at one beat per measure. Fortes were overly loud for 18th century music, but both here and in the mass clarinets played with particular eloquence.

The Moody’s variable acoustics were set for quite a “live” effect, apt to the church-music mass, but too sonically glaring and swimmy for the Mozart symphony. It’s too bad sound absorptive banners weren’t further lowered over side walls for the symphony, then raised for more churchly reverberation in the Haydn mass.


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