The Chorus pro Musica is off to a good start for the season and can be looked to for continued artistry in the choral realm. The concert was, with my exceptions noted, a rewarding afternoon of excellent music making.
Chorus pro Musica. At Old South Church, Boston, MA, November 6.
By Anthony J. Palmer
Betsy Burleigh and the Chorus pro Musica acquitted themselves well in the opening concert of their 2011–2012 season. Burleigh does not hesitate to challenge the singers and their audience with difficult but meritorious works. Brahms’s motet, Warum is das Licht gegeben, opened the concert, a notable work musically and one of the two motets of Opus 74. Warum was written in the late 1870s and reflects Brahms’s homage to his German lineage of great composers, dedicating this work to Phillip Spitta, the great Bach scholar. The structure of the work also reflects a look backward by not only using canonic and other earlier compositional devices in the Romantic milieu in which he lived but also ending the four-section work with a chorale on a text by Martin Luther.
The first section with four mixed voice parts is ostensibly in d minor but opens with a forte on a D major chord, resolving to its tonic minor, followed by the answer at a piano level in the lower three voices on the dominant of d minor, an A major chord that resolves to the tonic minor of d. This was a stroke of genius musically, adding poignancy to the question posed by a Job earnestly seeking answers: why Lord? Warum, sometimes re-voiced but with the same harmonic progression, occurs four times during the first section. Canonic writing prevails between each reiteration of the warum chords.
The chorus made much of the mood of this motet with their finely shaded dynamics. Phrasing was appropriate, and balances were maintained even with the two inner sections divided into six parts. The second section was in the related key of F major, suited to the text, “Let us lift up our hearts . . . ,“ as was the third section in the same key expressing faith in the “patience and purposes of the Lord.” The chorale fourth movement returns to the four-voice format and reinforces Brahms’s homage to his German forebears, not only in the use of a chorale but through the utilization of the dorian mode, recalling an even earlier time. Nuance and subtlety were hallmarks of this rendition of this well-known motet and showed Brahms’s affinity for the voice in a satisfying manner.
Zoltán Kodály lived through some dark days, as did his European compatriots during the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944. Still, his only mass shows episodes of light and joy amid the life-threatening bombardment of Budapest where Kodály and his Jewish wife were forced to take refuge in a Catholic convent, later in the basement of the opera house.
Based on his 1942 mass for organ, the work was restructured for mixed chorus and organ. Although the mass is traditionally set in five sections with minor deviations, Kodály begins with an Introitus for organ, with the Kyrie oddly following in d minor after a final Eb major chord in the organ opening. The Kyrie exhibits both the difficulty of the mass and its beauty. After a somber beginning, the Christe section features three highly voiced, soprano soloists over a sustained choral expression of the word eleison, all helped by a duplication of voicing in the organ accompaniment. The usual mass portions that are sung follow, but Kodály not only closes the mass with an Ite missa est (the mass is finished, go forth) but changes the last line to Da pacem, Amen (give us peace, Amen). In a world of turmoil, one wishes for peace most fervently.
The organ accompaniment was exceptionally well played by George Sergeant, adding much to the enjoyment of the concert. The chorus sang well throughout the mass, exhibiting their joy of performing this music and exhibiting fine preparation.
My criticisms are few, but it must be pointed out that two aspects of their performance, in my opinion, are in need of repair. Singers have to be taught to sing in a linear fashion, something that comes more easily with instrumentalists. One can easily draw a bow across a violin string to keep the tension of the tone vital and growing in intensity. Not so with singers because of how sound is produced. It is much more difficult when one has to manipulate an entire body. Chorus singers particularly need to be consistently conscious of leading and sustaining every tone in the phrase so there is no hint of letting up the tension. Consonants so easily disrupt the flow of the vowel that special care must be taken to carry each phrase to its conclusion.
Another criticism concerns the soprano tone quality. In the upper mid-range of the soprano voice, there is a tendency to lose focus, and particularly in the forte passages, the tone can easily become a bit strident, as it did on occasion here. There is a peculiar human disposition to try to sing (or speak) louder when there is much sound in the vicinity. Sometimes this results in pushing the sound a bit, which then become strident.
The second half of the concert showed redemption in terms of my criticisms. The text focused on light, a purposeful departure from a darker first half. Jonathan Dove’s “Ecce beatam lucem” led and was repeated as the penultimate selection. Thomas Tallis’s “O nata lux” was an excellent choice for comparison with the modern setting of the same text by the much-performed Morten Lauridsen. Both settings were revealing of the text in their respective styles, and yet the contrast was not so different as one would expect for the 400 or so years of separation. These pieces were rather static in mood with a slower tempo and less inner movement to enliven the texture, although one section in the Dove was canonic and made for more interesting movement. The final work, Ko Matsushita’s “O lux beata Trinitas,” made for an apt conclusion to the concert. At times polymetric and rhythmically rich, the composition is a worthy addition to the choral repertoire.
The concert was, with my exceptions noted, a rewarding afternoon of excellent music making. The Chorus pro Musica is off to a good start for the season and can be looked to for continued artistry in the choral realm.