Concert Review: Boston Choral Ensemble — A Must for Anglophiles and Choral Groupies

The Boston Choral Ensemble concerts are shaped by an astonishing amount of thinking and creativity.

“Chichester.” Performed by the Boston Choral Ensemble. At the Old South Church, Boston, MA, June 3.

By Richard Bunbury

Boston Choral Ensemble — Artistic director Andrew Shenton has clearly made it his mission to win audiences by being both superlative and innovative.

Given Boston’s competitive market for choral concerts, it is thought that it is impossible for a group to attract notice unless it features a big-name soloist or employs a large number of amateur singers with supportive and extended families. The Boston Choral Ensemble’s latest performance suggests that it is time to toss that lazy cliche aside.

Artistic director Andrew Shenton has clearly made it his mission to win audiences by offering concerts that are superlative and innovative. From the use of a digital projector for the texts and translations to the inclusion of new, appealing, and provocative choral works that meet the highest artistic and technical standards, Shenton finds ways to connect to listeners through an experience of musical joy and facility. The focus on young, brilliantly talented singers and composers also makes the Boston Choral Ensemble concerts stand apart from others.

What’s the “Chichester” thing all about? The great Norman cathedral in the city of Chichester lies in Sussex, in south east England. Its dean, Walter Hussey, was responsible for commissioning art works (music, poetry, and the plastic arts) from about 1955 to 1977. (He began the extraordinary practice during his previous appointment at St. Matthews in Northampton, England, where he was responsible for bringing about such notable works as Benjamin Britain’s Rejoice in the Lamb.) Interestingly, a good portion of Shenton’s early career was spent as an organist and choirmaster at St. Matthews; while there, he came to admire its creative heritage. At St. Matthews, he commissioned one of this concert’s works, Geoffrey Burgon’s Song of the Creatures. Shenton continues to encourage new work as the leader of the Boston Choral Ensemble organization: he commissioned (through competition) an exciting choral work for this concert—The Mountain Lion by 23-year-old Stephen Feigenbaum.

An astonishing amount of thinking and creativity has shaped this program. Three settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis both framed and served as the centerpiece of the program. The outer works by William Walton and Bryan Kelly were composed for Chichester Cathedral and are pillars of the latter’s choral repertory. Composer Dame Judith Weir’s setting of the text strengthened the central portion of the program, connecting this concert with the group’s previous outings where her works have been a regular feature. In between, we hear William Albright’s Chichester Mass, which is unexpectedly delightful and atmospheric. The runaway highlight of the evening was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, for chorus, boy soprano, organ, harp, and percussion. Imagine crossing Bernstein’s West Side Story with Britain’s Ceremony of Carols. Twelve-year-old Forrest Eimold’s captivating boy soprano voice is inspiring, particularly in the “Adonai ro’i” movement in the Bernstein. Forrest is also featured in Lenox Berkeley’s “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

Artistic Director Andrew Shenton

The Boston Choral Ensemble’s approach to singing is very much in the English collegiate and cathedral style—straight-toned, expressive, supple, sensitive to textual stresses, and possessing an extraordinarily wide dynamic palette. Their vowels, vocal production, balance, solid intonation, and diction are superbly uniform. The group’s close connection with conductor Shenton is palpable, responsive to subtlest gestures. Such coordination is the result of a cohesive aesthetic vision and a highly selective audition process.

Boston’s new “organ wunderkind,” Balint Karosi, provides the accompaniments on the church’s Baroque-inspired Frobenius tracker organ. For organists, this instrument would appear to be the antithesis of what’s needed for the repertory performed in this concert. The organ is transformed into an English-style instrument under the intelligent and capable hands and feet of Karosi. Harpist Ioana Comsa is delightfully in sync with Karosi, even though the performer was placed at the other end of the sanctuary. Jonathan Hess provides just the right timber and volume of percussion, never overwhelming the singers. Assistant Conductor Michael Dauterman represents the organization’s commitment to fostering the choral art in training and promoting new talent.

The Boston area has a new voice that’s well worth listening to. Those who attend today’s concert at 3 p.m. should be prepared to be bowled over. If you’re not able to take in today’s performance, I recommend bookmarking the group’s website and entering its next season of concerts in your calendar.

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