In one way, the fact that all the pieces dealt with sleep and dreams was a clever if somewhat abstract idea. But listening to the concert—the real experience—was highly problematic.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Presented by Musica Sacra. Conducted by Mary Beekman. At First Church, Congregational, Cambridge, MA, May 19.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
On a pleasantly warm Saturday evening in Cambridge, Mary Beekman led a highly disciplined choral ensemble in a most unusual program, To Sleep, Perchance to Dream. Musica Sacra has many wonderful qualities: impeccable intonation, beautiful blend, and a luscious and suave tone quality. Their involvement in the music is immediately present and engaging. Standing in a tight semi-circle for this performance, the singers were in two rows, a very advantageous position in which to hear each other and to maintain a tightly knit ensemble. Standing in mixed formation also helps enormously for the demanding listening that unaccompanied singing requires.
The program was divided into two parts, each consisting of two parts, for a symmetrical organization of music built around the theme. Beekman is to be commended for placing short numbers into their own section so that applause does not interrupt the progression of the selections. The composers chosen were quite varied in terms of time, although Beekman relied exclusively on Western composers. Orlando di Lassus was the oldest (he died in 1594), with the chorus performing his Toutes Les Nuits and moving up to the youngest, Eric Whitacre (born in 1970), with a highly nuanced piece entitled Sleep (this has its own interesting history—put the title in your browser to find it).
Sung in Estonian, “A Dance Song” (English sub-title) began and ended the concert. The latter contains verses about the end of song and games: it was composed by the highly esteemed, Baltic composer Veljo Tormis, who is not very familiar to American concertgoers. With reference to the “end of song and games,” the chorus exited in small groups until only one singer was left, a very effective staging device. Along the way, the audience heard works by John Wilbye, Camille Saint-Saëns, Johannes Brahms, Josef Rheinberger, Ivan Tcherepnin, Morten Lauridsen, Frank Ticheli, and David Hamilton. The song were sung largely English but French, Spanish, and Estonian were also part of the program.
The Tormis work was highly repetitious, with the women carrying the main melodic theme while the men sang an ostinato-type part that could have been more vocally substantial. The Wilbye, Draw On Sweet Night, was less cohesive and not as energetic as one might expect. Abendlied by Rheinberger reestablished the solidity in movement that carried through the rest of the concert. There Will Be Rest by Ticheli displayed a gorgeous sound and close harmonies well sung. I liked the way the dynamics were handled in Elgar’s There Is Sweet Music.
In one way, the fact that all the pieces dealt with sleep and dreams was a clever if somewhat abstract idea. Listening to the concert—the real experience—was highly problematic. With the arrival of the sixth piece, Toutes Les Nuits, I began to wish for a change in tempo or texture, perhaps added instrumentation, something to reinvigorate my senses. All the tempos were on the slow side and, except for the Tormis work, were unvarying. Tension for the sake of contrast then needs to be created by harmonic processes and variations in texture, which is what the composers did quite well in their pieces.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to the group’s nuanced singing and the attention to the text in Whitacre’s Sleep. Tcherepnin is not often performed, so his Butterfly Dream was a welcome addition to the program and showed the ability of the group to sustain the vocal lines with nicely modulated dynamics. The Lauridsen piece, Soneto de la Noche, was typical of this composer and although a touch strident in the fortes, the group showed excellent control of dynamics and tempo.
The concert could have generated more contrast by increasing the number of works with instrumental accompaniment. “Abendlied” from Vier Quartette, Opus 92 by Brahms was the only one of the 14 pieces accompanied with piano. Given Musica Sacra’s research for the present program (and with millions of choral works in print), surely other compositions with piano or other accompaniment were available. A useful comparison would be to food. Too much of a good thing is not appetizing. Therefore, chefs prepare a variety of different tastes and textures in a meal. Think of the organization of wines: the lightest whites come before the heavy reds. This music program needed that kind of meticulous attention to modulation.
Beekman’s approach to choral performance is also limiting. I have heard Musica Sacra on numerous occasions and I have always left the concert feeling it was time well spent. I don’t think that hearing too many performances of one group makes one jaded, but while the group is enormously polished, it lacks spontaneity. Can music be too well rehearsed? Is the audience receiving a compelling performance when flawless preparation eliminates excitement? Listening to this performance, I could not imagine anything going awry: a wrong entrance, a slight deviation from perfect balance. To some degree, this predictability shows up in the conducting as well. I sense no welcoming of sudden inspiration, an inclination to make a slight change in tempo, a rubato here and there to highlight a crescendo. Are the singers sufficiently rehearsed to approach their performances with that kind of flexibility? Of course. I am not arguing that a group should attempt a concert under-prepared for the sake of supplying surprise. But music can be packaged too neatly.
Even with the beautiful tone the ensemble produced, the languages did not sound sufficiently authentic (I am not qualified to judge the Estonian). The group came closest to adequately singing the German. The Spanish and French were simply not acceptable for a group of this capability.
Usually I like Beekman’s programming, but after this concert, I chose to sleep and dream of more exciting and less controlled music making.