The Spectrum Singers, under the direction of John Ehrlich, delivered an outstanding performance at the First Congregational Church in Cambridge on Saturday, November 22. The program, entitled “A Christmas Prelude Celebrating St. Cecilia” offered a wide range of music from the late Renaissance and the 20th Century. Christmas music was featured in the first half of the program, and the second (and much more engaging) half was entirely devoted to pieces dedicated to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
The first half was not without its moments. The concert opened with a grand fanfare featuring the works: organ, brass, full choir – a massive, intense sound that filled the church. Second on the program was the well known Christmas favorite, but with a refreshing twist: Philip Brunelle’s innovative arrangement of Coventry Carol was filled with interesting diversions from the traditional harmonies – a far more beautiful (and difficult) version, performed a capella with elegance. Guitarist John Muratore took the spotlight for a couple of solo numbers, then accompanied the choir for Alf Houkom’s The Rune of Hospitality, with a notable performance from both the choir and the instrumentalists. Gabrieli’s Sonata Pian’ e Forte featured a wildly out-of-tune brass section, which managed to pull together for the William Mathias’s A Babe is Born, which featured a wonderful blend of organ, brass, and voices. The more rhythmically complex and contrapuntal moments of the piece tended unfortunately to get lost in the reverberation of the church.
After intermission the Brass ensemble performed another work of Gabrieli, opting for the rich sound of modern instruments. Gabrieli’s Canzon Septimi Toni No.2 was an impressive performance. The true highlight of the evening was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, an extremely difficult piece sung with the utmost regard for contrast, shifting with seamless control from the most delicate to powerful passages. Multiple soloists were featured, but soprano Robyn Sanderson and bass Dana Whiteside truly stood out. Above a fairly dense texture of voices for most solos, even in the 20th century repertoire, Sanderson’s unwavering voice cut through the ensemble with a sense of haunting beauty – a captivating performance, and a voice that really delivers the post-bel canto sound. Whiteside’s performance was equally powerful, reverberating the church with stentorian tone and sending chills throughout the audience.
Two pieces by Daniel Pinkham were featured on the second half. The first, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, was a bit disorienting. The piece, though sung with accuracy and sensitivity, shifted between a generally modern sounding form of extended-tonality supported by the organ, and a completely different idiom of more “choir-friendly” music. The result was much like listening to a conversation in two different languages. The piece did provide many moments of interesting music, and signifies a respectable inclination towards adventurous programming. Soprano soloist Laura Serafino Harbert delivered a noteworthy performance. The second piece by Pinkham, To St. Cecilia, was much easier to swallow, but not quite as memorable.
The final piece, Norman Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecilia, was largely a setting of the same text as the first (and later composed) Daniel Pinkham piece A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. It might have been more interesting to hear these pieces directly next to each other on the program, as they both displayed two very different interpretations of the 1687 text by John Dryden. The Dello Joio, both intriguing and impressive, closed the concert with pertinent and powerful lines:
“The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.”
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.