An effective choral concert begins with a sensitivity to programming. Coro Allegro’s program on Sunday afternoon, February 28, at Church of the Covenant, successfully crafted a concert around German “Sprüche,” which are aphorisms and dictums that have provided fertile ground for German vocal composition, particularly during the Baroque Era. Sunday’s concert centered around the extension of that tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries, opening the program with Brahms’ Fest—und Gedenksprüche, op. 109 for Double Chorus and closing with Hugo Distler’s 1934 Totentanz.
Church of the Covenant, while providing a very nice acoustic for certain choral repertoire, did not assist the antiphonal texture of the Brahms and at times muddied the articulation of the middle voices. Given this challenge, however, the chorus worked hard to deliver the motivic interplay between the two choirs. The sopranos, in particular, offered beautiful vibrato-free lines in the homophonic sections, creating a reminder of just how much Brahms’ work is en hommage to the earlier traditions of composers like Johann Rosenmüller and Heinrich Schütz. The chorus deftly negotiated the Baroque alongside the more Brahmsian gestures, providing a seamless marriage of old and new.
John Tavener’s Song for Athene (1993) followed, and Artistic Director David Hodgkins requested that applause be held as the piece would be sung in memory of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. With headlines still fresh from Saturday morning’s earthquake in Chile, the work became all the more resonant. Here, the chorus was clearly attuned to the piece’s relevancy, expressed most fervently with the transition to the text, “Life: a shadow and a dream” which could have served as a thematic subtitle for the concert as a whole.
The chorus seemed slightly less labored with Poulenc’s Three Latin Motets than with the Brahms, perhaps this as a result of more familiar texts. In the “Exultate Deo” especially, the ensemble exhibited great sensitivity to the jubilant text and the fanfare figures. The Lenten meditation “Vinea mea electa” sacrificed some sense of forward movement for the vertical sonorities, but the close watch of chorus’s director was heartening.
The first half of the concert closed with a stunning performance by former BSO flutist Fenwick Smith, this year’s recipient of Coro Allegro’s third annual Daniel Pinkham award. (Past recipients were baritone Sanford Sylvan in 2008 and Bishop Gene Robinson in 2009.) Smith performed Elegy for alto flute that was written for him by Daniel Pinkham. The haunting melodies of the elegy traveled through the sanctuary, evoking the memory of a composer whose death in 2006 remains fresh for many in the greater Boston musical community. Smith’s performance preceded the presentation of the award and the offering of a few words by Pinkham’s partner, Andrew Holman. But Pinkham’s work also provided a segue to the second half of the concert, where the audience is asked to confront the unrelenting reality of Death itself.
Under the vise-like grip of the Third Reich, composer Hugo Distler committed suicide in 1942 at the age of 34. That alone would already make his Totentanz eerily prescient, but the presentation by Coro Allegro, assisted by Richard Knisley as Death and Fenwick Smith on the flute was one of the most profound experiences I’ve witnessed at a choral concert in recent memory. The Totentanz brought together all the various elements of the concert, not just the theme of Death in all its guises, but a sense of historical continuity as well. Distler’s Totentanz is fashioned after a medieval liturgical drama or morality play and is largely a response to a mural the composer saw at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. The painting depicted Death dancing indiscriminately with a variety of people, as a metaphor for the “Black Death” that significantly reduced Europe’s population in the 14th century. The chorus, for its part, sings 12 settings of mystical “Sprüche” that address the pragmatic questions of death ( “Man, this world’s beauteous form will fade away in time./Why then depend so much on passing joys?”). The flute acts as both a ritornello and prelude, often providing a musical preamble to Death’s next invitation, such as the dancelike hornpipe that precedes Death’s invitation to the Sailor.
The speakers who participated in the work were, in most cases, not far removed from their real-life positions: UCC minister Elizabeth Ann King in the role of the Bishop, primary care physician Dr. Guy Pugh in the role of the Doctor, cellist and sheet music dealer Rob Bethel as the Merchant, and farm manager Laura Olive Sackton as the Farmer, to name just a few. But it was the last speaker, fourth grader Ashwin Devavaram (as the Child) who offered the most sobering (and poised) spoken performance of the afternoon. Unlike the Old Man (poignantly spoken by Eric Davis, famed teacher at Commonwealth school since 1972) who eagerly awaits his turn to join the dance of Death, the Child is confused, and the chorus sings “The soul which on earth is smaller than small/Shall in the realm of God the fairest angel be.” Aside from some strained pitches in upper voices, the chorus delivered a nuanced performance of Distler’s challenging shifts from organum to polyphony, capturing the importance of the text in each motet. The diction was clearly articulated in most cases (especially good vowels), although some of the final consonants were lost to the music’s texture. It was moments such as the mocking counterpoint in the motet for the Doctor (“Your greatest Friend, your body, it is your fiercest foe…”), when the chorus demonstrated their ability to grapple with issues of both musical and textual significance. Richard Knisley’s performance recalled the figure of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, whose patience and inevitability is at once chilling and familiar. The “Sprüche” texts do this too, by lending an unsettling familiarity to the universal question we all face. Coro Allegro’s entire performance was an elegant meditation on this most perplexing and difficult of subjects.