in: Reviews

June 3, 2013

Coro Allegro’s Schubert, Higdon, & Bullen

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Schubert, Higdon, and a world premiere by Greg Bullen, brought Coro Allegro’s 2012–2103 season to a close Sunday at Church of the Covenant, where the sixth annual Daniel Pinkham Award went to conductor David Hodgkins.

A chamber string orchestra of local freelance musicians, along with soloists Elissa Alvarez (soprano), Greg Zavracky (tenor), and Andrew Garland (baritone) joined Coro Allegro for Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G (1815). Written for performance at a parish church, this work can be performed by smaller ensembles or amateur choirs, but to perform it well requires skill and focus. It also includes a re-ordering of the text of the rite, and a key omission in the Credo, which makes this a concert work rather than a composition that could be performed during a religious service. The Kyrie begins with as tutti of the combined forces of voices and instruments, and together they were from the first note. This precision and attention to detail started the concert on a footing which was maintained throughout. The Credo opened over a walking bass line and was sung with verve and conviction. The Sanctus featured a happy, exciting fugato on Osanna in excelsis. Throughout there was strong singing combined with a good variety of tonal colors and dynamics, and a lot of good blending of voices. The soloists shone in the Benedictus; Alvarez sang with smooth, rounded tones, Zavracky with mellowness, and Garland with strength. There was a sweetness and a tenderness in this meditative reading of the Schubert Mass.

Following intermission, Coro Allegro returned for some 20th-century fare: the world premiere of Greg Bullen’s The Orchard:  Songs of Fruit and Love. This work sets five poems by William Carlos Williams for chorus, baritone (Garland returning to the stage), flute (Melissa Mielens), French horn (Kevin Owen), and piano (Darryl Hollister). Piano remains a constant across all five movements, while the flute and horn work singly and in tandem to provide bursts of color. The middle movement, “This is Just to Say,” highlights the baritone soloist, while the earlier movements “The Bare Tree” and “The Orchard,” as well as the latter movements “Wild Orchard” and “Perfection” focus more on the choral line. This chamber music composition, which began with an a cappella choral setting of “Perfection” but has now metamorphosed into something very different, is organized around the cycle of the seasons. The music featured a great use of the harmonic possibilities of a chorus, and there was a delightful humor to the setting of “This is Just to Say.” I would have to hear this work again to try to grasp the compositional decisions made especially in the first two movements, where the words and music seem to alternate between combining into one unit or contrasting off one another. I hope to have that chance someday soon.

The program continued with selections from Jennifer Higdon’s Southern Grace (1998). This composition revisits familiar Appalachian tunes or hymns in new settings or versions. “I. Fiddlin’” has the chorus singing solfège syllables, becoming an instrument to sing out a wordless tune in Shape Note style; the result was a catchy tour de force. “II. Wildwood Flower” sets a song of love, betrayal, and loss for voices divided between a small group and the full choir; it is a sad tale and was performed with heart wrenching passion. For “III.  “VI. Amazing Grace,” the final selection, fronted Virginia Fitzgerald, Nancy McGhee, and Amy Randolph-Couture before the whole chorus. This setting both preserved the well-known hymn and made it into a vibrantly new piece of music. Throughout these movements from Southern Grace I kept thinking back to Copland’s Old American Songs; both show a love for American song and a deft touch with recreating this familiar music in altered guises. I wish Coro Allegro had performed the entirety of Higdon’s cycle (although, to be perfectly honest, given the sweltering heat in the church I was also grateful they did not do so on this concert).

In a sense, that concluded the formal part of this concert—although the event and the music were far from over. Tanya Cosway, President of Coro Allegro, presented David Hodgkins with its sixth annual Daniel Pinkham Award for “contributions to modern American music and his accomplishments as a role model for the LGBT community” and as a way to preserve Pinkham’s vibrant musical legacy. Based on this concert, Hodgkins is a nuanced and inspiring musical director and the award serves as a tangible reminder of his skills and the fruitful collaboration between him and Coro Allegro. Following the presentation and speeches, present and former board presidents and choristers of Coro Allegro took the stage to sing Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and Keith Hampton’s “Praise His Holy Name.” Both songs are stylistically different from what preceded them on the program, and it is a testament to the breadth and range of Hodgkins and the chorus that these performances were just as precise, just as nuanced, just as passionate and driven as the Schubert which began the afternoon.

After my first time hearing Coro Allegro, I could literally kick myself; this was one of the most exciting, vibrant, and polished concerts I have heard recently. Everyone brought his A-game, and it showed.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

2 Comments

  1. Hot, but so worth it! The solfege movement of the Higdon was amazing.

    Comment by Jim Moskowitz — June 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm

  2. I didn’t attend this concert (I was off reviewing another one more or less around the corner), but from Cashman’s fine description, it seems as though Higdon’s piece may have been influenced by William Duckworth’s “Southern Harmony” from around 1980. If you like that kind of solfege setting of shape-note tunes (the SH settings contain text settings as well), you should go listen to the Duckworth (it’s been recorded), which in my view is the best piece of sustained a capella choral writing of the 20th century, and a true masterpiece in any century.

    Comment by Vance Koven — June 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

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