in: Reviews

May 21, 2012

Exquisite “To sleep, perchance to dream”

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Sleep, dreams, and night permeated the texts of Music Sacra’s fascinating choral program entitled, “to sleep perchance to dream,” on May 19th at First Church, Congregational, Cambridge. Artistic Director Mary Beekman’s 14 selections combined rarely heard works by famous composers (Saint Saëns, Elgar, Orlando di Lassus, and Brahms) with works of obscure composers (to me) who are better known, I gather, in the choral world.

The program opened with one and closed with another of the nine sections of Igerimaa õhtud (Ingrian Evenings) by Veljo Tormis (born 1930), which the chorus will re-explore next season. The first, “Röntyskälaulu I,” is a joining together in song, with exquisite soprano solos by Rebecca Blum.  Other than its linguistic challenges (it’s in a dialect of Finnish), these songs include vocalized inhalation, used in Ingrian singing. Ingrians are native Finns (this explains the language which resembles Hungarian) who moved back and forth between Finland and nearby Russia. The 20th century — with the German occupation, then Soviet rule — was particularly cruel to them and was reflected movingly in the concert’s last piece. I will make sure I hear the rest of them next season on the Musica Sacra program “Baltic Inspirations” scheduled for March 9, 2013. Tormis was the big discovery for me from this concert.

Draw on, Sweet Night by John Wilbye (1574-1638) sees night as an opportunity to find some “ease from paining.” The ravishing Abendlied by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) implores a higher spirit to bide with us; day is drawing to a close. Frank Ticheli (born in 1958) paints night as a time that promises repose in There will be Rest. He colors the word stars “I shall find” by having the phrase sung three times, peacefully.  It brought to mind the “rest” sung several times at the end of John Rutter’s Requiem. This was surely one of the evening’s most beautiful pieces. I keep learning on the job that at choral concerts, it’s often the least known composers who produced the most memorable music.

“There is Sweet Music” from op. 53 no. 1, Four Choral Songs, by Sir Edgar Elgar (1857-1934) was a revelation (although chorus members all seemed familiar with it). Here the singers describe music that brings “sweet sleep down from the blissful skies,” music that “gentlier on the spirit lies,” with the singers starting at different moments. Antiphonal choruses declaim the poem; bass voices and treble voices intone the poem, each in a different key (G major and A-flat major) which produce the kind of disorientation of dreams.

Orlande de Lassus’s (1532-1594) text wins the “Most Unrestful” title, but his music, full of longing, was ravishing:  “Every night that I go to bed without you,/ thinking of you, I lie half asleep/ and dreaming until I awake/ I continually search for you among the bedclothes,/ and all too often, where your mouth would be,/ sighing I kiss the pillow.”

How They So Softly Rest by Healey Willan (1880-1968), to a text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had a deeply peaceful sense, the “rest” being in silent graves where, “Until the Angel calls them, they slumber!” Eric Whitacres’s (b. 1970) Sleep, with poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri, ended the first half in a blaze of glory: the poet knows sleep is coming soon. He describes noises and other terrors of the night, and wonders what dreams may come as he surrenders unto sleep. The chorus sounded positively victorious here, with interesting harmonies and high voices singing of what precedes the surrender. It was a great ending to the first half.

Saint-Säens’s (1835-1921) ethereal Calme des Nuits tells of the poet being haunted by the love of quiet things. “Par l’amour des choses tranquilles,” its last line, is repeated several times, slowly, after “Le bruit plaisent aux plus futiles” (noise is pleasant to those more frivolous) sung with gaiety, loudly. “Le bruit” was sung by four voices, one after the other with many moods. The singing was simply lovely throughout.

Brahms’s (1833-1897) “Abendlied” from Vier Quartette, op. 92 was accompanied by pianist Terry Halco. This was the only time an instrument was used during this concert. In this poem, sleep comes to end, if not eradicate, joy and sorrow. “Are you already asleep, Grief, who depressed me?” Finally he finds sleep and like appears to be like a lullaby.  Brahms, no slouch at writing lullabies, ends this as a Schlummerlied, a soporific lullaby.  Music Sacra’s performance made me determined to hear the rest of this quartet.

Caliban’s Song by David Hamilton (born 1955) from The Tempest, Act III, Scene ii featured both ethereal and dramatic singing, with the chorus whispering in the last line, “I cried to dream again.” The sudden variations in tempo, texture and dynamic deftly help portray the befuddlement of Prospero’s servant, living in a world he cannot understand.

My favorite piece on this most varied program was Morten Lauridsen’s (born 1942) Soneto de la Noche, a lovely setting of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 89th sonnet, Cien Sonetos de Amor. Mary Beekman explained in her thoughtful and always informative program notes that the title which featured “night” fit the program, so she included it! The poem speaks of a man who hopes to live on in his beloved, “Quiero que vivas mientras yo, dormido, te espero” (I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep.”)  The singing was as achingly beautiful as the text.

The whole choir, especially sopranos Jennifer McLean and Lorraine Fryer, got cameos of three-by-three (usually), singing, as they walked down the aisle, disappearing as they sang the last of nine sections of Veljo Tormis’s poignant Igerimaa õhtud. Tormis wrote of this piece, “It is a farewell song to the whole of Ingermanland… the former population of which has been scattered or assimilated as the result of the two World Wars and … the criminal policy of genocide carried out by the Soviet Union.” The singing was anything but mournful; it was lively and joyful. After the exits of groups of four and five, all singing, only one soprano is left. She sang like a lark, then walked away

Beekman knows how to program, and her chorus knows how to bring the music and the texts to life. Musica Sacra always impresses, surprises, and delights.  To this writer, who has grown up in an instrumental and symphonic world, much choral music remains unknown, yet my ventures into that repertoire, beyond the “Top 10” favorites, have afforded untold delights, especially when the chorus is Musica Sacra.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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