The Seraphim Singers, conducted by Jennifer Lester, presented a typically imaginative mix of eclectic choral music, hymns, and solo organ literature on Sunday afternoon, October 17, in the vast space of Roxbury’s Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (the “Mission Church”). This is a chorus of twenty-six members, mainly organists, composers, and other professional musicians.
This concert’s wonderfully remote beginning, with the performers at the back of the basilica singing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Heilig” (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts), was genuinely evocative of seraphim singing from a great height; but the texture soon expanded and the sound grew into a powerful outpouring of praise. The great reverberations in the enormous room could truly make one believe “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
The hymn “Tell His Praise in Song and Story, Bless the Lord with Heart and Voice” then followed with audience participation, led by the Seraphim Singers and ably accompanied by Heinrich Christensen on the magnificent Hutchings organ.
Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) is best known for his organ works and for having taught some eminent musicians, including Boston’s late-19th-to-early-20th-century composers George Chadwick and Horatio Parker. Rheinberger’s choral compositions have only recently begun receiving the attention they deserve. His Mass in E-Flat Major is scored for eight parts in double choir format and unaccompanied. Regrettably, the signal effect of the ubiquitous antiphonal writing — two choirs engaging in dialogue with each other — was largely imperceptible here, partly due to the highly reverberant acoustic and partly to the two choirs’ standing together as one group in the basilica’s chancel.
The mass was sung expressively and with impressively nuanced dynamics. The blend was fine, only occasionally marred in a few louder passages by an obtrusive tenor vibrato. The singers were commendably focused on the entire contrapuntal picture. In imitative sections such as the scalar figures in the Kyrie, each voice part would emerge naturally when it had the important melodic material and then recede to let the next voice part emerge.
There was also drama at appropriate places, the most striking of which is when one choir sings “Crucifixus” in bare octaves, arpeggiating a dissonant chord, forte, as if outraged, which was answered pianissimo “Etiam pro nobis” by the other choir. The “Et resurrexit” was also unusually set, beginning piano and mysterious, only gradually growing into a great proclamation. The performers’ control of dynamics paid dividends here
The Agnus Dei began with an anguished cry for mercy in C minor, only reaching the original E-flat major in the course of “Dona nobis pacem.” There was a particularly luscious Amen, of which Lester delightfully described the penultimate harmony as a “barbershop chord.”
William Harris’ 1925 setting of Edmund Spenser’s poem Faire is the Heaven made a logical successor to the mass, also being in eight parts, double choir, and a cappella. It was taken perhaps a hair too fast for clarity in the vast acoustic and given the sophisticated and sometimes quick-changing harmony. Nonetheless it impressed with impeccable intonation, crisp ensemble through several tempo changes, and skillfully controlled dynamics. It only lacked the final degree of electricity obtained from two separate choirs tossing the same melody back and forth with antiphonal gusto.
Mr. Christensen performed Canadian composer Healey Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ with a fine sense of drama, utilizing the immense acoustic to his advantage. He displayed a large number of the beautiful solo colors as well as the majestic tutti of the Mission Church organ over the course of the eighteen variations of the passacaglia.
The audience was led by the Seraphim Singers in another wonderful hymn, “All My Hope on God is Founded” (music by Herbert Howells), as they repaired to the organ loft. The chorus then offered the Brahms motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen?” (Why is light given to those in misery?). The first section, with text from Job, is punctuated arrestingly four times by the title’s first word repeated, the first iteration forceful, the second subdued each time. The echoes of the room actually enhanced the effect, the repetition emerging from the reverberations of the first statement. The final section, with text by Martin Luther, was a chorale, no doubt in tribute to J. S. Bach, sung with beautiful tranquility.
Psalm 96 (“Sing, and let the song be new”), a contemporary piece by Cambridge composer James Woodman, was commissioned and premiered by the Seraphim Singers in 2007. In a modern but accessible idiom, it utilizes an interesting alternative translation of “Cantate Domino.” Much of the piece had an infectious energy; the singers seemed to relish the jazzy rhythms of “Now rejoice and leap and roar” and “Dance O dance.” One hopes this will become, if it is not already, a staple of the repertoire.
The program concluded with Herbert Howells’ “Magnificat, Collegium Regale,” written in 1945 for King’s College, Cambridge. Robert Barney supplied the exemplary organ accompaniment, ever sensitive to balance but providing some lovely colors as well. The opening section, for sopranos and altos only, was marvelously ethereal and impressionistic. This made for a dramatic contrast when the men joined in vigorously for “He hath shewed strength with his arm.” Also notable was the elegant interweaving of organ and choral sound at “Abraham and his seed, for ever.” The final section, “Glory be to the Father,” rang out with unforced power and majesty.
In the words of the first hymn, the Seraphim Singers and Jennifer Lester certainly do “bless the Lord with heart and voice.”