The singers were in the mood, in a manner of speaking, and although they seemed quite still in posture, their voices generated an inner dance filled with delightful variations as they advanced through 18 verses of varying tempo and emotions.
Luxurious Harmonies. Presented by Newton Choral Society. At the Church of the Holy Name, West Roxbury, MA.
By Anthony J. Palmer
Last Sunday, at the Church of the Holy Name, David Carrier’s 80-voice Newton Choral Society presented Luxurious Harmonies, a continuous 70-minute program to the delight of a large and appreciative audience.
The first of the melodious attractions was Daniel Pinkham’s Wedding Cantata. Written in the late 1950s and one of the composer’s most performed pieces, the cantata is little more than 10 minutes long. But within its four short movements, the composer’s empathy for the voice became evident. Assisted by Mark Feldhusen’s sensitive piano accompaniment, the chorus approached the work tenderly and reveled in the beautiful lines of its choral texture. The group’s warm and welcoming sound revealed why this work is beloved by singers. It calls for passionate engagement, and the Newton Choral Society complied. Vocal lines were clearly delineated and harmonies sharply distinguished, especially in the third and fourth movements, “Awake, O North Wind” and “Set me as a seal.”
The middle work of the afternoon also features melody as one of its principal qualities. In addition, its triple meter brings a sweeping stimulus to its insinuating charms. Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer, Opus 52, composed around 1868–69, prances its way into the romantic corner of our souls. Although initially written to be sung by solo voices, the work is more often performed with larger groups. Carrier wisely decided to reduce his singers to about 25 to maintain the chamber feel that the composer originally intended. I learned that the smaller group alternates membership to engage all the singers over time, a commendable procedure. The waltzes require four hands, and Mark Feldhusen was joined by Darryl Hollister to offer appropriately sensitive accompaniment.
Brahms returned to Vienna in the late sixties after going through some trying times, principally the death of his mother in 1865 and the completion of his Ein deutsches Requiem. His mood lifted, he turned to these brief but inspirational poems of various European sources found in a single volume of poetry translated by Georg Friedrich Daumer, German poet and philosopher.
The singers were in the mood, in a manner of speaking, and although they seemed quite still in posture, their voices generated an inner dance filled with delightful variations as they advanced through 18 verses of varying tempo and mood. Adrianne Fedorechuk, soprano, and Raymond Delisle, tenor, both added with their solo portions to the happy and flirtatious mood of the waltzes. Although the music contains various contrasts, the singers made the most of the changes in emotion from verse to verse. “Wenn so lind dein Aug emir” (number eight) and “Am Donaustrande” (number nine) were good examples of the group’s sensitivity. For my taste, having conducted the waltzes, I would have enjoyed a bit more of a call to dance, sung with more of a sense of abandon.
The first two works logically led to the third offering, Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus, a work now in the standard choral repertoire but neglected since its initial composition in 1922 and 1926 until its first performance in 1963. Martin, tenth and last child of a Huguenot Calvinist minister, showed extraordinary musical talent early, finally receiving in his teens his first formal musical studies from a local Geneva composer.
The mass, fittingly placed in the category of luxurious harmonies, certainly can be thought of as melodic, although in a different mode of melodic writing than the first two works. The vocal lines are obviously conceived for voice, but performing the piece requires an orientation that goes beyond weaving simple major/minor patterns. Further, a cappella singing is never easy because the only pitch reference is within the singer’s mind. In this case, the work is also for double chorus, which challenges intonation even more.
The Newton Chorus succeeded in both aspects of maintaining good pitch throughout and clearly delineating the vocal lines and resultant harmonies. Although a mass setting is traditionally meant to take one to a higher plane of existence, Martin’s mass keeps us rooted in our humanity. And it is this latter quality that I felt was most explored by the chorus. Their intensity fitted the task and kept the listener’s interest in the progression through the traditional mass texts.
After the opening of the Kyrie with only the sopranos, other voices added slowly, the rest of the score is thick with multivoiced textures firmly rooted in Martin’s unique approach to harmony. Dynamic contrasts were handled well: the opening of the Gloria in fanfare style was as effective as the softer section beginning with Jesu Christe, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei. Repeated dynamic contrasts were found in the Credo as well, illustrated in the section beginning appropriately with et resurrexit. The work requires a certain kind of vocal energy to maintain its intensity, and the chorus responded with concentration. They paid a great deal of attention to detail and ended with a controlled and quiet Agnus Dei. The Martin mass is a difficult work, and the Newton Choral Society did it justice.