When a robust section of male singers, supported by a royal trumpeting in the brass section, sang out "Hosanna in excelsis" toward the end of Faure's "Requiem," the voices produced a sound that would have veered into shouting territory in a less practiced ensemble. After a brief repetition of the short phrase, women matched the basses and tenors with their own triple-forte recitation. Then, in a split second, the voices became a whisper. In those few bars during the "Libera Me," the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus summed up the ensemble's undisputed strengths.
Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles led the ASO Chorus in the "Requiem" — exactly the type of all-hands-on-deck work the symphony and chorus almost always perform extremely well. Runnicles last appeared with the chorus in Bruckner's "Te Deum" earlier this season, and he notably led the chorus and orchestra through the devilishly challenging "Missa Solemnis" by Beethoven during the 2015-2016 season. He was initially scheduled to bring back the Beethoven work to Atlanta audiences next season, but will instead conduct another "Requiem," this one by Verdi, instead.
Faure’s “Requiem” has sustained passages of sublime pianissimo, sung by the chorus with conviction and rigor. In full-throated passages throughout the work, the awesome power of the assembled voices — prepared, as always, by Norman Mackenzie — filled the hall.
Soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel and baritone Matthew Worth provided the occasional solos in what is a decidedly choral work. Runnicles has a long history with Strebel, most recently working with the soprano in the last ASO performance of "Missa Solemnis." In 2013, she performed in "Peter Grimes" with the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Runnicles' baton.
In her one solo turn, the beautiful “Pie Jesu,” Strebel’s velvet voice was backed only by organ, while the assembled symphony musicians waited to fill in the singing gaps with a quasi-call and response. Though it was Strebel’s only role in the production, she made an indelible impression.
Earlier in the evening, ASO flutist Christina Smith moved to center stage, performing Andre Jolivet's "Concerto for Flute and Strings." Smith has a deeply resonant tone, sparkling and clear on the surface but with a luxurious richness and sustain. She layered this sound atop an orchestral accompaniment full of 1950s modernism; packed with sharp angles and pointy edges, the strings function less as a straightforward accompaniment than as a sparring partner.
During the piece, Smith bobbed and weaved through a vertiginous melody that at times seemed like composed improvisation. The disjunct melodic lines painted Smith’s flute as a modern dancer, an energetic contortionist more than happy to underline the vast compositional evolution showcased in the night’s program. Faure’s “Requiem,” written in 1888, is a world away from the Jolivet.
Runnicles began the evening, and the study in French composers, with Debussy’s “Nocturnes,” a three-movement work in which each section is a distinct sound painting. The gossamer string chords and the cautious woodwinds of the first movement give way to the whippoorwill speed and playfulness of “Fetes.” To close the short work, Debussy evokes a siren song. Thursday, the women of the ASO Chorus sat in for these otherworldly creatures, spinning a haunting, and enduring, melody behind the orchestra.
Donald Runnicles conducts Debussy, Jolivet and Faure
8 p.m. May 25. Additional performance at 8 p.m. May 27. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.