in: Reviews

December 12, 2008

Christmas in (New) England from Old England

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Indescribably ethereal sounds came from a multitude of human voices at the Church of the Advent where on Friday, December 12, Donald Teeters, The Boston Cecilia and special guests, Exultemus, presented “Christmas in England: Ancient & Modern.” The program began with 20th-century England and the music of Benjamin Britten, followed by Christmas with Henry VIII and Christmas in Tudor England. After intermission came early English carols from around the time of the Renaissance, and later carols from modern composers William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Tavener. (That is correct; John Taverner with another “r” was another composer on the program.)

Almost all purely vocal music, some of the selections, including “Festival Te Deum,” involved the church’s historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, played by Barbara Bruns. Soprano soloist Genevieve Hendrey showed a voice strikingly like that of a boy soprano: pure, clean, vibrato-free, a straight-on sound the church’s acoustics helped to broadcast. In Advent’s large space, over and above the organ and chorus, the tones she made pierced the air as you might expect on a cold winter’s night.

Donald Teeters commanded unordinary refinement of choral singing. This could be heard to great effect in the two variations from Britten’s “A Boy Was Born.” Throughout these wintry pieces, neat choral phrases depicting the “frosty wind made moan” swirled about the church. Soprano soloist Barbara Hill added her own chilling phrases shaped artistically and poetically.

Four vocalists including a countertenor make up Exultemus, founded in 2003 by Andover native Shannon Canavin. Their sound, too, was highly refined; “ringing,” is a term often associated with a kind of singing that this quartet pursues. The idea is to produce harmonies tuned in a certain way as to create overtones. (Barber Shop and its female equivalent, Sweet Adelines, are examples of vocal harmonies that have a special “ring.”) While Exultemus’ singing of the “Coventry Carol” demonstrated an early period type of ring often in ear-boggling fashion, it did so with little effect. A nuance to the word “raging” (“Herod the king in his raging”) was just not enough; the listener really had to go looking for it.

Not so with “Ther is no rose of swych vertu.”  Dance rhythm in quick triple time and repetition of phrases seemed to have served as a springboard for this group’s achieving real physical movement, if not a larger sense of what we know as the musical experience. This was a festive, accessible performance.

As with winter in New England, so did these many Christmas songs finally begin to take their toll. That feeling of cabin fever and of wanting a change kept creeping in. Not that there were not beautiful sounds everywhere, but that there were not enough colors in the singing, not enough drama, or life, in a word.  The finely tuned sonorities with their smoothly contoured melodies became too much. What seems to have been forgotten in the pursuit of artful singing is what we, the listeners, really depend on and that is feeling.

The Boston Celia returned to complete the program with more moderns. Walton’s “What Cheer” and Vaughn Williams’ festive “Wassail Song” again showed the precision and passion for singing these talented and devoted voices enjoy. I sensed, though, that the audience, while fully appreciating their formidable accomplishment, nonetheless felt its own unfamiliarity with the a cappella format and perhaps even more so with the early period music of the likes of Taverner, Tallis and Byrd.

This celebration of Christmas took the ear to the sublime. I am afraid, though, at times it did not reach the heart or spirit to carry us away or, at least, to help us find our way.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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