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.