in: Reviews

April 21, 2013

Peaceful and Timely Choral Concert

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Little did conductor Jameson Marvin know when he chose the works for Saturday’s concert that the theme of resting in peace would be all too timely. The packed, emotionally wrung-out audience in First Church Congregational, Cambridge sorely needed the soothing balm that sometimes only music can provide. Beautifully performed, the music allowed the audience a chance to calm down, breathe, and, from time to time, quietly cry.

The youthful 60-member Jameson Singers strode out on stage in springtime pastel tops. “I don’t think there could be a more appropriate program (Requiem, Remembrance and Renewal) after what we’re experienced the past five days,” Marvin told the audience. “I hope it provides solace for us all.” It did, in piece after piece, culminating in a moving performance of Gabriel Fauré’s sublime Requiem, the inspiration for the rest of this program. Marvin writes, “The sound images of his score create over time a sense of well being providing solace for mankind’s contemplation of mortality—a picture of life’s journey, the sadness of death, and the comforting thoughts of a blessed afterlife.”

The Jameson Singers began three years ago after Marvin had retired from his post as Director of Choral Activities at Harvard for 32 years. In its first season, 47 out of 53 singers had originally sung under him at Harvard. This season, 45 of the 60 singers had had that distinction. Clearly, singers have thrived under his tutelage; some 50 of his former students hold significant choral positions in the USA. Appearing  for this concert in a hashed semi-circle, the singers performed with impeccable intonation and blend.

One short prayer-like piece flowed into another, with mostly peaceful moods being interrupted, as they are in the Fauré, with moments of drama and a recurring refrain of “Requiem aeternam” from Tomás Luis de Victoria’s (1548-1611) 1605 setting of the Requiem.  Victoria’s “Versa est in luctum” uses a famous text from The Book of Job (My harp is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of those that weep. Spare me, Lord, for my days are nothing.) After which came Britten’s plangent Prayer II (what a year for hearing new Britten works this has been!) with a text about life’s shortness by Gerald Manley Hopkins, “I have life, they purpose to fulfill; help me sir, and so I will.” Written in the fateful year of 1939, it was meant to be performed by tenor Peter Pears and his group of “Round Table Singers,” but it didn’t get a performance in its entirety until 1984, and wasn’t published until 1989.

The Jameson Singers’ dramatic deployment of crescendi was striking; even when I got accustomed to them, I’d still get goosebumps, as I also did in (former Harvard student) Michael Schachter’s (b. 1987) polyphonic motet, “Sed virtutem gradibus (2012), when a heavenly sounding “ubi deitatis se conspectrum semper” suddenly swelled in volume to “cernere gaudent beati.” (where the blessed rejoice so that they forever discern God’s countenance), returning to peacefulness through the famed lines, sung in unison in a minor key, “Vita brevis, ars longa.”

“Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitig stirbt” by Johann Christoph Bach, J.S. Bach’s older cousin (1642-1703) takes its text from the Wisdom of Solomon, 4:7-14: “The righteous man, though he die before his time, is nevertheless at rest.” All the first half’s texts echoed or commented on each other, imparting a oddly calming cumulative effect.

The most extraordinary piece, for this listener, was the “Requiem Aeternam” section of a six-movement Requiem by Herbert Howells, which was, like Britten’s Prayer II, written in the 1930s (1936) but not published until the 1980s. What a ravishing ode to loss this movement is!  Acutely aware of all the young soldiers who had died in the First World War, Howells had also recently lost his nine-year old son to polio and was further devastated by the death of Elgar two years earlier, when he wrote this searingly beautiful piece. The Jameson Singers sang with passion and, doubtless, a tragic new understanding of these pieces’ timeless texts.

“Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest,” Gabriel Fauré once remarked.  For this beloved Requiem, the Singers were joined by a small chamber orchestra with organ, in an arrangement by John Rutter based on a version of Fauré’s 1893 reworking of his 1887 Requiem for much larger forces. I have never really cared for this thinned-out version for chamber orchestra, with one violin (who plays only solos, here Charles Dimmick), 5 violas, 5 celli, one bass, two horns, harp and organ, but the singing was, again, just beautiful. Michael Barrett, whom I have heard around town many times this year, was the baritone soloist in Libera Me, begging humbly to be delivered from eternal death, then, asking the Lord to grant eternal rest and let perpetual light shine upon the dead.

Saint-Saëns once stated, “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.” In the most gorgeous moment of a night, soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad soared with heavenly beauty through this Pie Jesu—one I will not soon forget.  Kudos and thanks to the chorus and to marvelous Marvin.

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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