in: Reviews

October 18, 2010

Harvard Re-Channels Americana

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Palladio's Window Reappears in Appleton Chapel After Organ Removal (BMInt Staff Photo)

The Harvard University Choir, a sixty-voice body of undergraduates under the direction of Edward Jones, presented an unusual concert at Harvard’s Memorial Church on Sunday, October 17, consisting of two works: Randall Thompson’s Frostiana and Alice Parker’s Melodious Accord.

Long a favorite of this reviewer and long “banned in Boston” for its accessibility, Frostiana is an example of Randall Thompson’s stubborn refusal to bow to the compositional commonplaces of the 1960s. Somewhat in the mode of his Testament to Freedom and Alleluia (the most performed chorale piece by an American composer), Frostiana is frankly melodious and lyrical, though it does take extreme liberties with Robert Frost’s meters. Some accounts have an annoyed Frost leaving the premiere performance while others have him asking for encores.

We are grateful to have heard it again in these environs but would have preferred the 1965 chamber orchestra version to the 1959 one with piano. There were stylistic choices that were also disappointing. First of all, one was struck by the affectation of British pronunciation. According to one of the choristers, that was the choice of the conductor, Edward Jones, a Welshman. Indeed, one thought at times one was hearing overly legato Anglican chant with a very parsimonious provision of consonants. Words did not count. The dynamic range was also quite limited, with only two instances of ff or above. The result was that there was a dreamy sameness to much of the piece. But Frostiana should be about more than beautiful choral tone: humor, fear, adolescent hormones and wonder all need to be evoked through more variety of tone production and rhythmic flexibility.

The playing of pianist Christian Lane was overly deferential, except in #5, A Village Garden. Playing a parlor grand open only with short stick, Lane was a considerate accompanist, repeatedly pulling back at each choral entrance as though he was accompanying a small voiced soloist rather than a large-ish chorus. But Thompson’s accompaniments deserve to be heard and performed with orchestral colors; this is not an a capella piece. There was a reigned in and humorless quality to the entire performance despite many moments of beautiful singing and well shaped phrases from the fine chorus. In particular I would cite a foundational buzz from the low basses and a bright ping from the tenors.

Alice Parker’s Melodious Accord (1974) was a curious program choice. Consisting of thirteen hymns taken from an 1832 hymn book, Genuine Church Music, the work might have been a product of the Better Music Movement founded by Lowell Mason. The 1832 arranger’s and Ms. Parker’s re-channelings robbed the 18th-century music of the ragged grittiness that interpreters like Boston Camerata reveal in more authentic performances of such tunes. As accompanied by the Riverside Brass Ensemble (two trumpets and two trombones) and Krysten Keches, harp, the performance had more in common with Salvation Army services than with the expectations of the original composers. In accord with the instructions of the composer, Edward Jones invited the congregation to rise and join the chorus for a choral climax — a standing ovation ensued.

Ed. Note: The last sentence of the review was changed in response to a correction supplied by Edward Jones.

Lee Eiseman is publisher of Boston Musical Intelligencer.

4 Comments

  1. American hymnody is an interesting and surprisingly varied field.

    Being unfamiliar with the Alice Parker piece, I am not sure what she did to the originals by Joseph Funk, a German-American Mennonite musician. But my memory of Funk’s work is that it’s quite triadic and derived largely from the German-Lutheran chorale tradition. As such, it would be bound to sound different from the more rugged and untutored (and earlier) New England sources (Billings, Ingalls, et cetera) favored at local Sacred Harp sings, and in concert and recording by the Boston Camerata, among others.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — October 19, 2010 at 3:28 pm

  2. Joel-

    I’m not sure what your point is in the comment above. Whether that man Funk was pentatonic or triadic is not really at issue. Maybe what’s more interesting is Edward Jones’s Welshman’s take on Americana.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm

  3. Lee, I can’t comment on the Welshlichkeit (or lack of it) in the performances, since I wasn’t there. But my point was, choice of repertoire may also have played a role in your overall impression of the concert. Jeremiah Ingalls rocks; Joseph Funk, as I recall his pieces, just sways a little.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — October 20, 2010 at 4:36 am

  4. By the time Funk came along, the “Better Music Boys” like Lowell Mason were making some headway in combating the raucous joy of the fuging tunes of Ingalls and Billings et al. Funk was trying to compromise between this European style and the full-throated (in every sense) style of earlier Americans like Billings and Ingalls, then still being practiced by Funk’s nearby contemporary Ananias Davisson in his Kentucky Harmony series. While one cannot easily forgive Funk for, e.g., removing the fuging from tunes like Lenox, his book was aimed at Mennonites who probably had little exposure to this style, and introduced them to a number of Anglo-American folk hymns as well as stodgier European tunes of the sort that Mr. Cohen objects to.

    Funk’s “Harmonia Sacra,” as “Genuine Church Music” was retitled with the fifth edition of 1851, is still in print, and used in some Mennonite circles. The current 7-shape edition from Good Books is the 25th (1993). It adds a “Part 3” that is an 18 pp. sampling of the original 4-shape 3-part settings from the first and second editions.

    I know the music’s actual sound mainly through a beatifully-recorded CD of singers in Elkhart, Indiana, titled “Joyfully Onward I Move.” This CD is available from CD Baby, with samples of a few of the songs on the site.

    There’s a nice talk about the Shenandoah music scene in Funk’s time by Warren Steel: (http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/shenandoah.html

    Comment by John Martin — March 22, 2011 at 8:37 am

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