The Choral Arts Society had, depending on your point of view, the luck or misfortune of snagging Rob Kapilow to introduce the penultimate program of its 2011 season, Mozart’s Requiem.  The effervescent musicologist has his own shtick, a highly entertaining lecture series called “What Makes It Great?” in which he breaks down a classical work prior to its performance, after which the piece itself can seem like more of a coda rather than the main event.

As the MC and preshow conductor, Kapilow was alternately bubbly and intense.  Were he only wearing a question-mark suit, he could pass for Matthew Lesko peddling some get-rich-quick scheme, mixed with some Henry Rollins scary motivational speaking. Requiem Mass in D Minor is an appropriate lecture subject for both music theory and history, given the myths that shroud the work. Mozart himself died before completing the piece, thus consigning to it the melodramatic aura of an artist writing his own eulogy. Among its many fictional treatments, Amadeus has Tom Hulce’s Mozart dictating the piece on his deathbed to F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri (it was actually Mozart’s student Franz Sussmayr who probably finished the job) before being dumped in a pauper’s grave to the tune of his unfinished mass.

Kapilow has a knack for explaining the nuts and bolts of a performance without patronizing the audience.  The lecture had the feel of a conductor leading a practice, breaking apart movements and parts before putting them all together, all the while talking over the music with exclamations like “public mourning is ritualized!”

Following an intermission, outgoing CAS director Norman Scribner took over for Kapilow to lead the Requiem in full. And after 50 minutes of hyping by Kapilow, the performance itself was somewhat anticlimactic. Scribner, who weirdly conducts from his hips, brought down the tempo from Kapilow’s pregame to a more somber funeral dirge. The chorus—-men in tuxes and women in smurf-blue dresses—-gave a powerful performance, often drowning out the orchestra, which at times sounded anemic. The Lacrimosa movement from the Sequentia was especially wonderful, and stood as a testament to how much Mozart ripped off and then improved on Handel’s more popular but far more boring Messiah. Soprano Elizabeth Keuch and bass Kevin Deas gave standout solos, matched especially by the CAS soprano section. But overall, after showing off the mechanics in the first half, the performance in full couldn’t help but feel a bit…mechanical. The old adage about people who like laws and sausages comes to mind.

The contrast between the reserved Scribner and overcaffeinated Kapilow did show what a difference a conductor can make, even if the fun guy isn’t usually one’s first choice to lead a funeral mass.  The dynamic between the two at rehearsal is one behind-the-scenes peek that would have been interesting to see.  Maybe they could pitch an odd-couple show to VH1 Classical.