in: Reviews

November 15, 2010

Anthems and Mass Ordinary: Spectrum Singers

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“Sound the Trumpets!” was the motto of the Spectrum Singers’ fine concert on November 13 at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge, under the able direction of John Ehrlich, who has commanded them for 31 years. A brass group of 4-3-3-1, plus one percussionist, was front and center, with Heinrich Christensen at the organ off to one side but providing bright antiphony. (The organ is a three-manual Frobenius with one enclosed division, plenty of mixtures and reeds, and several ranks en chamade — projecting horizontally — for a particularly bright sound.)

The program featured shorter pieces — anthems and commemorative concert music — on the first half, with Joseph Jongen’s beautiful Mass setting on the second. It began with Marcel Dupré’s Poème héroïque, op. 33, for organ, brass and field drum, composed in 1935 to celebrate the rebuilding of the Verdun Cathedral. Dupré is known everywhere as one of the great French organists, Widor’s successor as organist at St.-Sulpice in Paris from 1934 to 1971, who could play Bach’s organ works from memory and who published one of the best editions of all of them. This sober and often subtle tribute to the dead of the Great War balances chorale-like triadic harmony with military tattoos and marziale gallop rhythms, but there was an elegiac tone in the solo trumpet melody and the chant-like middle section in which the organ’s string stops had a particularly haunting sound.

The Jubilate Deo (1972) by Sir William Walton is a lightweight but pleasant setting of Psalm 100 in the translation from the Book of Common Prayer, chorus and brass. “Be ye sure that the Lord he is God” had one droll touch: the trumpet solo was muted. Virgil Thomson’s “When I survey the bright celestial sphere,” composed 1964 on a text by the seventeenth-century British poet William Habington, is an example of Thomson’s pure-triad style like nineteenth-century American hymnody, with a choppy prosody in irregular meters that completely overrides the verse structure. The accompanying counterpoint offsetting this simplistic choral writing was effective in Scott Wheeler’s brass arrangement (two horns, two trumpets, trombone), but in the entire piece I did not hear even a single note that was not in the C major scale.

Morning Music by Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006), for brass quintet and organ, dates from 1995. Its five short pieces, Reveille, Song, Sports, Reflection, and March were a tribute to the centenary of Paul Hindemith and his Morgenmusik (1932) but were also a reminder of how Pinkham, beloved composer, harpsichordist, teacher and choirmaster, a longtime resident of Cambridge and a friend to so many, is no longer with us. I thought I heard a chord from Gershwin’s An American in Paris but I may have only been imagining it.

The setting of Psalm 90 by William Mathias (1934-1992), a Welsh composer, made particularly effective use of contrasting groups, often with antiphonal brass and organ, and with choral harmony mostly in parallel triads over an organ pedal or with a solo trumpet or trombone. The opening lines of Psalm text (“Lord, though hast been our dwelling place in all generations…”) are repeated at the end.

The highlight of the first half of the program was certainly Lili Boulanger’s brilliant Psaume XXIV. The first woman ever to win the Grand Prix de Rome for composers, Lili was the superbly talented younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, who devoted much of her long career to promoting Lili’s works. (Full disclosure: I am president of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, established by Nadia in 1939 to provide modest but vital financial support for young musicians at the beginning of their professional careers.) Lili’s setting of Psalm 24 (“The earth is the Lord’s”), in which a mostly unison chorus duels with brass fanfares in stark open fifths, has harmonic richness, sonic splendor, and fine vitality effectively compressed into a little more than three minutes. A paean to the glory of God, it was composed in 1916 when the composer was twenty-three years old and only two years before her tragic death from tuberculosis.

Like César Franck, Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) was an outstanding Catholic organist and masterful composer born in Liège in Belgium, but unlike his fifty-years-older predecessor Jongen made his career in his native land. Organists have long admired and performed his shorter pieces, and his grand Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra has occasionally been performed with notable success in America, but little more of his extensive output in vocal and instrumental music is remembered today. Jongen’s Mass, op. 130, is a late work (1945) and an important one. Saturday’s excellent performance was eloquent testimony to the need to keep this fine music alive.

The G-minor Kyrie shows from its very first bars Jongen’s command of an expressive harmonic idiom that is clearly influenced by Franck but also by his Impressionist contemporaries. I think there was a chant melody at the foundation but I couldn’t identify it. The Gloria gave more room for contrasting the different groups: chorus, brass, organ, sometimes blended and sometimes antiphonal, with the chorus usually in unison where there was harmony in the instruments, and vice versa. Several of us who heard them remarked on how well all of these forces combined with each other and faced off against each other when called for. (Does anyone agree with me that the chorus came very close to singing the “Gloria” melody from “Angels we have heard on high” in Jongen’s “Glorificamus te”?) The Gloria is well structure tonally, from B-flat major at the beginning and end to G-flat and a variety of other keys in the middle.

Jongen gave the Credo, the longest section of the Mass Ordinary, a carefully conservative treatment beginning in D major, with well-distributed instrumental passages to offset the choral, and some appropriate literalisms: the melody descended at “descendit de caelis” and ascended at “Et resurrexit,” but this is consistent with a long tradition of Catholic and Protestant music alike. “Sub Pontio Pilato” had whole-tone harmony; “et vitam venturi saeculi” restored a bright D major.

The Sanctus and Benedictus featured an abundance of expressive 12/8 meter, and I was reminded of the similar passages in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. In the “Pleni sunt coeli” there was a spate of imitative counterpoint, otherwise unusual in this work. There was a Mendelssohn-like ambience in the quintet of solo voices, contrasting with soft organ in the Benedictus, but “Hosanna in excelsis” brought forth the full fortissimo ensemble. The quiet Agnus Dei began with the trombones in a stately E minor sonority and I wondered if Jongen knew Bruckner’s Mass setting in the same key, also with wind accompaniment.

The entire Jongen Mass lasts about half an hour. It could certainly be used liturgically but it also is eminently practical for concert performance. I hope this fine work will get many more hearings. Those who heard it last week, especially in such a fine performance, will certainly remember it.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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