Concert Review: The Boston Choral Ensemble’s “Cosmic Journey” — An Out-of-This-World Experience

What I’ll remember most is how the BCE’s various choral pieces seemed custom-made for the Hayden Planetarium’s celestial projections, and how, for an hour, the so-called real world faded away.

Boston Choral Ensemble -- a glimpse of the "Cosmic Journey" at the  Photo:

A glimpse of the Boston Choral Ensemble’s “Cosmic Journey” at the Boston Museum of Science’s Hayden Planetarium. Photo: David Rabkin.

By Susan Miron

Cosmic Journey, performed twice in early June by the Boston Choral Ensemble in the Boston Museum of Science’s Hayden Planetarium, was so extraordinary (for once, the word is an understatement) that it probably could have sold out for many more performances. Alas, the standing-room only encore performance on June 26 will be it for this season.

A planetarium is hardly the place one thinks of as a normal- or ideal- venue for a choral concert, yet the combination of choral works about the heavens and a super high-tech presentation worked wonders, not only inspiring awe but, quite often, engendering serenity during the concert’s hour-long length.

The Boston Choral Ensemble, an excellent group of between 36 and 40 mixed voices led by artistic director Andrew Shenton, devoted their Cosmic Journey to eleven pieces, none of which I had heard before. Two eclectic twentieth century masters – Hungarian György Ligeti and Estonian Arvo Pärt – were joined by other internationally-based composers. The common thread: a deft use of cosmic atmosphere in their music.

This reviewer has seen her share of captivating concerts, but recalls nothing remotely like this one, which most likely accounts for its runaway popularity. The audience took up about three quarters of the seats: there are capacious, comfy lounge chairs that demanded one look up and see the virtual star-speckled heavens above. The choir took the other quarter of the seats. They sang in the dark — except for little red lights that held their sheet music and the glow stick wielded by their conductor.

First, the amiable music director/conductor Andrew Shenton told us about the pieces his chorus was about to sing. The room then was dramatically darkened, fading out its 360 degree view of the Museum of Science area skyline. Once the singing started – all well-conducted and sensitively sung – program notes would have been futile and distracting. This was an experience that discouraged being told exactly who wrote what, when, or why. The music was perfectly aligned with the sublime images, whether they showed comets and asteroids hurtling your way, or the surfaces of the moon and earth as seen from afar. The parade of intergalactic sights was timed perfectly, fusing beautifully (at times magically) with the eleven visionary compositions.


Among the stars: the Boston Choral Ensemble’s “Cosmic Journey” at the Boston Museum of Science’s Hayden Planetarium. Photo: David Rabkin.

One of the most memorable pieces was performed first. Eric Esenwalds’s “Stars” featured a double choir and water glasses, the rims of the latter eerily “played’ by several singers — the result sounded like a glass harmonica. These otherworldly sounds contrasted nicely with the darkening Boston skyline, which slowly faded away into the inky night sky. A traditional Kentucky Appalachian folksong, “Bright Morning Star” (arranged by Fred Squatrito in 1937), featured a spiritual melody harmonized with an elemental simplicity. The performance raised goosebumps.

Ligeti’s ten-minute Lux Aeterna was used, famously, in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The wordless piece is made up of changing chord clusters whose sonic eeriness builds and builds. The music’s visual accompaniment: mists and mountains that seemed to melt, Dali-like, into space. During much of the performance, balletic projectiles of lights flashed across the ceiling, like flocks of eels. Objects of all-sizes flitted and whirled about, yet somehow the “background” music was always uncannily apt.

Zvonimir Nagy’s effective “Eternal Piece” received its world premiere. Ola Gjello, the Norwegian composer now living in New York City, was represented by the lovely “The Spheres.” Zachary Wadsworth’s “Look Down, Fair Moon,” the winner of the 2008 BCD Commission Competition, was a real find. Z. Randall Stroope’s popular “We Beheld Once Again the Stars,” inspired by Dante’s Inferno, ended the concert. This composition, alternately peaceful and exuberant, providing a stirring conclusion to a truly memorable event. What I’ll remember most is how the various choral pieces seemed custom-made for the planetarium’s celestial projections, and how, for an hour, the so-called real world faded away, replaced by visual and sonic beauty, and peace.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and plays the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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