On May 22 at the First Church, Congregational of Cambridge, Musica Sacra performed a completely secular program called “Mary’s Playlist” to honor and thank their artistic director, Mary Beekman, for her 30 years of inspired musicianship.
Boston is a city with an embarrassment of choral riches, but this Chorus Mom, who has heard her share of choral programs, has rarely heard a more enjoyable evening of music and words for chorus (a small one, about 26). Never having heard this jaw-droppingly good chorus before, I was astonished by the sheer beauty of their voices, which under Mary Beekman’s inspired and rigorous direction, captured the spirit of each of a large variety of texts and music.
One of this concert’s pleasures was reading Ms. Beekman’s miniature musical memoirs, which took the form of delightful and highly informative program notes. She would, for example, tell who the chorus was trying to “channel” in their presentation of a work — Betty Boop in the 1928 hit, I Wanna be Loved by You, Rudy Valle, “a crooner from the ‘20s,” in Hello, My Baby.
Animals had big walk-on — or slither-on — parts in Oh to be a Dragon (text by Marianne Moore) and A Jellyfish by Yehudi Wyner, Frogs by Norman Dinerstein set to six haiku, and even a minute-long work about a microbe. Some half dozen Musica Sacra alumni joined their choral comrades on stage to sing a charming rendition of the children’s song, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, arranged by one of the evening’s heroes, Terry Halco, who acted as occasional pianist and baritone soloist in the gorgeous Irish air, My Lagan Love, set to music by James Erb. Ms. Beekman, who usually provided lengthy notes about where and how she found or discovered each piece, wrote simply, “OK, I’ve got nothing to say about this piece. If you don’t find it as achingly beautiful as I do, please come up to me after the concert and tell me.”
Among Ms. Beekman’s favorite pieces, there were, not surprisingly, songs about love — If I Loved You by Richard Rodgers, arranged for chorus by Kirby Shaw (from the Broadway musical Carousel), I Wanna Be Loved by You with its “Boo-boo-ba-doop”s, and with men in a semicircle accompanied by piano, and Jimmee’s Got Goil by Vincent Persichetti on a text by e.e. cummings. The beautiful Lay a Garland with the lines “Her love was false, but she was firm. Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth” was, for this listener, the highlight of the first half of the program. Kolenna Sawa by Jim Papoulis, the last programmed piece, featured a short text about “the strength of our unity… Each one of us “Will see Will Feel Will find.” The program notes said it all: “With its foot stomping, chest thumping, clapping, ululating, irregular rhythms, and mid-Eastern intervals of augmented 2nds, what’s not to like?” Well, yes, I quite agree.
Of Elgar’s haunting My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, Ms. Beekman provided a poignant glimpse of her early life. “This is the only work that was recommended to me by my father, who heard it on the radio in the ’70s and told me about it. Our musical tastes were very different, his tending towards the emotional excesses of Romanticism and mine towards the restraint of the Baroque.”
This, however, was not an evening of restraint. There was a palpable sense in the audience, many gathered outside in the spring air at intermission, that this was, even for this chorus, a very rousing event.