The Spectrum Singers, a remarkable ensemble of “amateur singers” founded and led by John Ehrlich, has been giving high-quality performances of a wide variety of choral music for nearly 30 years. On March 6, in the First Church Congregational, Cambridge, the ensemble continued its tradition, presenting music by three composers, each from a different country and time period.
The concert opened with four Latin motets by the 19th-century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner: “Locus iste,” “Os justi,” “Ave Maria,” and “Virga Jesse”. They are works that reveal his depth without suffering from his often overbearing sense of timing, resulting in some of the most concise expansiveness ever created in the Western canon. Each work is a self-contained universe encompassing a huge ambitus across the choir, broad phrases, waves of sequences, and swelling dynamics. The Spectrum Singers were at their finest with these pieces, capturing all the richness of compositional craft that the music has to offer. More importantly, though, their delivery radiated the wide and seemingly contradictory emotional range contained in these works—passionate reverence, plaintive joy, aching peace—with stunning power and sensitivity. Their performance seemed to stretch space and slow time, so that at the end of every piece, though only minutes had passed, one had experienced a lifetime of expressions.
The Bruckner motets would have been worth the price of admission all by themselves. Nonetheless, the program continued with a work by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten, an unsurpassed master of choral music. His Rejoice in the Lamb, a multi-sectioned work for choir, soloists, and organ, is a setting of some quirky yet deeply pious poetry by his 18th-century countryman, Christopher Smart. While Bruckner’s music wants to embody the entirety of Heaven in a bottle, Britten’s impact usually comes from choosing a single image in the text as an expressive springboard for the entire section, a habit that lent itself well to setting Smart’s wordy verse. For instance, the unexpectedly quiet, almost introverted final chorus takes its musical cue not from the first word “Hallelujah”, but from the word “sweetness” near the end of the poem. Overall, the Singers presented a solid and colorful performance of this fascinating and technically challenging work, despite the occasional stumble over mouthfuls of words in some faster phrases. The four soloists sang with grace and style, though their positioning in the chorus created a distance between them and the audience that was less than effective.
The final work on the program was a setting of the “Gloria” portion of Latin Mass for treble soloists, choir, and large ensemble (provided by the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music) by 17th-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. It is one of his more popular and effective works, featuring some of his most attractive vocal writing. He took a text that is normally presented as a single entity and divided it into separate, self-contained works, the interpretive challenge of which is to fully express the character of each individual piece while still creating cohesion across the whole. The one major fault in this performance was that Ehrlich seemed reticent to indulge in the more deliberate tempi needed in some of the pieces, resulting in a slightly cut-up, hurried feel overall. This deficiency was especially felt in the “Et in terra pax,” a grippingly powerful piece of long phrases and gut-wrenching suspension chains that requires a more slowly pulsating tempo than it was given. In general, however, ensemble and soloists performed with satisfying musicianship. The joyous “Laudamus te” for two sopranos was sung with light, sprightly verve by sopranos Susan Consoli and Kathi Tighe, whose vocal character and sonorities were well-matched. Consoli’s sweet, clear voice also blended beautifully with the solo oboe in the lovely “Domine Deus.” Alto Elaine Bresnick’s steely, slightly husky voice gave the intense “Qui sedes” a strange and dramatic flair. And in all cases, the melodic lines were creatively ornamented in the best Baroque tradition, hardly surprising from an ensemble that is so clearly comfortable in any century.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.