The place to be on Saturday, May 8, was very definitely the Concord Women’s Chorus 50th anniversary concert, “American Women of Note.” Every creaky pew (including those in the balcony) in the majestic First Parish was packed with devoted fans. Director Jane Ring Frank has been with the group for the past 16 years. After starting in 1960 as the Concord Madrigals, the group has grown both in size (now more that 60 members) and scope, with this concert demonstrating considerable artistic ambition in taking on a wide range of challenging styles. To celebrate their anniversary, they made the wonderful commemorative step of commissioning an important new work, Concord Fragments, by Libby Larsen, setting texts compiled and written by poet Melissa Apperson.
The ensemble is very tightly knit under Ring Frank’s dynamic leadership, with a kind of electricity keeping them connected at all times. She is best known for her work with the Boston Secession, a highly-acclaimed professional choral ensemble currently on a recession-induced sabbatical. This Concord Chorus is very different, definitely not professional, but full of admirable musicality. Through their long relationship and a lot of hard work, Ring Frank is able to draw every possible nuance of expressiveness from the ensemble, so that they collectively work as one sensitive voice — not a grand voice, certainly a voice at times with its grit and flaws, but always a very thoughtful and insightful voice. The interior of First Parish (as beautiful as it is), lacks the resonance that would enhance the sound of the chorus (and did I mention creaking pews?). But you can’t have everything.
Jane Ring Frank is a colleague at Brandeis (in the Women’s Studies Research Center), so, as I did a few weeks ago in these pages, I can admit to a lack of objectivity. Also, there were two songs by Beth Denisch, a friend with whom I attended the concert.
Ring Frank had devised a perfectly balanced program, beginning each of the two halves with settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. Celebrating the chorus’s role in the community, much of the repertoire drew on local or regional composers or poets and all the music was composed by women.
It was really quite a coup to get Libby Larsen, among the most performed living composers, to write the celebratory commission. She was full of enthusiasm in the pre-concert talk; clearly her commitment was the same as if she were writing for one of the preeminent orchestras of the world. A gracious and sympathetic speaker, Larsen paid tribute to the role of the listener in the creative process – as a composer she thinks of the listener’s perspective. Larsen talked about shaping phrases and ideas to create a “glowing page” for the words. The attention to detail and overarching scope of the larger picture are continually in balance.
Concord resident and chorus member Melissa Apperson provided the set of three poems, “Concord Fragments.” The first two of these were adapted from texts by 19th-century Concord women, (Lidian Emerson, wife of Ralph Waldo; and the unknown Martha Prescott). Apperson herself wrote the third poem, “Walden,” which quotes a phrase from Thoreau’s text.
“In Some Dry Earth,” Emerson describes a root from the garden that symbolizes the potential of spring. Sparsely accompanied by clarinet, oboe and piano, Larsen started out with a small focused sound that grew to lushness. Martha Prescott’s text “This Day I am Eighteen” was set with a shimmering sense of joy, excitement, and sensuality. Melissa Apperson’s “Walden” drew on abstract Transcendentalist themes of the nature of the soul, but illustrating them with vivid images (Like the loon, dive deep, take wing) which Larsen set with chiseled and vivid motives (the word “Dawn” rung like a chime). The piano underscored the first sections with a breathless rhythmic ostinato. The overall effect was a celebration of our shared human experience. This commission is a significant addition to the repertoire for women’s chorus and is a wonderful legacy of the Chorus’s 50th anniversary.
Beach’s three settings of Shakespearean texts were steeped in the 19th-century a capella tradition, rich four-part harmony. These lovely pieces are full of playful gestures. Rebecca Clarke composed her short “Ave Maria” (ca. 1937) with the hope that a Catholic friend might be able to get it performed in London. No such luck, and the work remained unknown in her estate until 1998. Tonal and chordal in vocabulary, its modernist twists of harmony make it a powerful gem.
The first of the set, Hope is the thing: an Emily Dickinson Suite (by Emma Lou Diemer), “Hope is the thing with feathers,” was lively, even jazzy, energized by a driving piano accompaniment. “A Bird came down the walk” began with the ensemble speaking the lines together, and then moving into melody over a playful piano vamp. “If you were coming in the fall” is a sweet ballad. “Some things that fly there be” featured the single word exchanges vividly thrown around the choir — full of fun and handled very adroitly.
The Dickinson “Three Seas,” that began the second half of the program was by Alice Parker, a prolific choral composer who now lives in western Massachusetts. These settings all evoked beautiful imagery of the sea in different ways, rocking and oscillating, but also in, “As if the Sea should part” employing a two-part canon.
Beth Denisch’s pieces, “Facial” (by Allison Joseph) and “Oh strange and lucid moment” (Maryanne Hannan) were from a song cycle originally for solo voice and mixed ensemble, “One Blazing Glance.” The entire cycle chronicles moments throughout the span of a woman’s life, but these two songs (that Denisch has arranged for women’s chorus) celebrate maturity. “Facial” is a fond tribute to aging skin, at first praised liltingly as a symbol of experience, and then given proud tribute as a sign of wisdom. The tempo was more relaxed and less sprightly than I had heard in performances of the original version, but it was completely engaging. Scott Nicholas, as the piano accompanist, here as elsewhere was sensitive and adroit in underscoring the changing moods, at first playful, then regal and majestic. “Oh strange and lucid moment” (titled by the poet “On learning my daughter is pregnant”) electrified an experience shared by many in the ensemble (as well as audience). Beginning with an intense declamation, the piece powerfully underscores the direct emotion of the text. This piece was clearly moving to both performers and listeners.
Hilary Tann in “Contemplations” interweaves verses from 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet with vigorous lines from Psalm 98 and creates a bold and rousing a capella work that drove to an energetic conclusion: the contemplation was not at all passive.
Ysaye Barnewell (well-known singer, composer and activist of Sweet Honey in the Rock) was the composer of the last three numbers, which were inspiring and soothing encores drawing on a folk-inspired idiom. They provided a relaxing programmed encore.