The Cambridge-based choral ensemble, Musica Sacra, celebrated two anniversaries at Sanders Theatre on March 20— the 50th of the group’s founding and the 30th of Mary Beekman’s leadership — with a typically ambitious and esoteric program. The plan was to select pieces written within Musica Sacra’s lifespan, and in fact the oldest piece was written in 1972. The eclectic program, which included two world premieres and Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist texts in settings by American, Polish, Israeli, Swedish, and British composers, demanded much of both performers and listeners, but it provided rich rewards as well.
The program opened with the first of the premieres, Boston-based composer Felicia Sandler’s Laus Trinitati (Praise to the Trinity). Based on a chant whose words and music were by the 12th-century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen, the piece effectively blended the medieval and the modern. The women began by singing the chant’s first two phrases as unaccompanied plainsong in beautiful, monastic fashion; then a single sustained pitch is added, underlying the reiteration of the chant. When the opening phrases next return, Ms. Sandler brings all the parts in imitatively, a mere eighth-note apart, evoking a highly reverberant acoustic setting and creating some fascinating harmonies. Near the end of the piece a middle part intones the chant while the other parts move slowly around it. To quote Ms. Beekman’s excellent notes, “As the outer voices extend to the outer edges of their respective ranges, one hears both the marvelous mysterious splendor . . . which is in all that is alive and also Sandler’s homage to Hildegard’s innovative use of an expanded vocal range in her compositions.” The work was well served by Musica Sacra’s exceptional purity of tone and control of dynamics. The piece ended with a wonderful hushed awe which the audience forbore to disturb with applause.
The newest piece on the program was followed by the oldest, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s Euntes ibant et flentes (Those who go forth and weep). Anyone who knows Górecki’s famous Symphony No. 3 (“Sorrowful Songs”) would quickly recognize the idiom here, namely, minimalist technique, very slow tempo, and mysticism. The singers repeatedly and hypnotically ascended and descended the small interval of a minor third in a muted dynamic. Yet when the text speaks of “com[ing] again with rejoicing, carrying their sheaves,” the dynamic suddenly jumps to forte and a major third is added below the original minor third. The chorus’s full involvement truly made this moment like “the trumpet call on the day of resurrection, waking the dead from the earth.”
Next came the second performance by Musica Sacra of a compelling piece written for them last year by Israeli composer Osnat Netzer: Paths of Stone and Water, sung in Hebrew. The three movements used three types of Jewish texts: in the first, modern Hebrew-Israeli poetry; in the second, passages from Psalms; and in the third, a modern adaptation of the Jewish traditional liturgy. To parallel the diversity of texts, Ms. Netzer chose to use three different musical styles as well. The first movement was inspired by the Israeli Mediterranean School of the 1930s and 40s whose music was frequently polyphonic and modal. The second was influenced by the Western juxtaposition of chant and harmony, as in Duruflé’s Requiem. The final movement was an amalgam of traditional folk music and Jewish Sephardic elements arranged in different ways according to changing text. Water and stone represented antitheses, but stone was also recalled as a source of water through God’s power. Again, conductor and chorus demonstrated full immersion in their text and performed with crisp rhythm, energy and conviction. The second movement also featured challenging solos which were skillfully handled by mezzo Katherine Meifert, soprano Rebecca Blum, and bass Terry Halco.
The second world premiere followed intermission: Bring Heaven to Earth by Jan Sandström. The music sets a Buddhist poem translated into English and is characterized by one basic motif and a largely unvarying texture. To again quote the fine notes, “The musical motif, which sets Let your love flow and opens the piece, consists of two falling fifths separated by a whole step up. Its recurrence serves not only to unify the work, but also to remind us that the simplest concept of expressing love in daily action has extraordinary effects far beyond our understanding.” There is a notable instance of word-painting when the sopranos soar effortlessly higher and higher as the text speaks of “a limitless love.” My only small reservation was the singers’ variable diction which led to such peculiar phrases as “strive for this with a one-pointed mine [mind].” Still, what ultimately resonated most in my mind were the enormous tone clusters towardthe end, testing the outer limits of basses’ and sopranos’ ranges, and the astonishing shift a whole step up of what had seemed like the final chord, reflecting the transformation spoken of in the last line of text: “Your life will bring heaven to earth.”
Sacred and Profane is one of Benjamin Britten’s last works, conceived as a virtuoso display piece for Peter Pears’ Wilbye Singers. Using medieval English texts written between the 12th and 14th centuries, Britten subverts normality by injecting strident discords and chromatic oddities into conventional chord progressions. The high points for this listener included the spirited opening movement, “St. Godric’s Hymn,” which contrasts chords reaching heavenwards with downward, repentant glissandi; the inventory of spring’s delights in the third section, so vividly evoked by the composer and realized by the chorus; the intense lament of the fifth movement in which the narrator regards Jesus on the cross, and featuring a powerful soprano solo by Janet Ross; and in the final movement the seemingly morbidly detailed description of stages of dying, capped off unexpectedly by the narrator thumbing his nose at it all: “Of al this world ne give I it a pese!” (tastefully translated for us as: “For the whole world I don’t care one jot.”). Perhaps Britten was contemplating his own approaching demise when he called for the defiant near-shout at the very end.
Musica Sacra, as directed by Mary Beekman, demonstrates a host of musical virtues: minimal vibrato, allowing fine blend and clear harmonies; excellent intonation; superb dynamic control; precise rhythm; complete mastery of music and words, permitting singers to be in very frequent eye-contact with the conductor which in turn allows her considerable flexibility; and full awareness of the text and effective communication of it to the audience. Moreover, choral aficionados must be doubly grateful to Ms. Beekman and Musica Sacra for commissioning and being committed advocates of such fine new works as Laus Trinitati, Paths of Stone and Water, and Bring Heaven to Earth. It’s not every concert that I leave hoping to hear every piece on the program again.