in: Reviews

December 11, 2010

Boston Conservatory’s Mixed Seasonal Offerings

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On Dec 10, the Boston Conservatory choruses and orchestra gave their winter concert of choral works related to the Christmas season at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center (formerly St. Ann’s Church). The Women’s Ensemble performed first, followed by the Conservatory’s mixed-gender Chorale. Both groups were accompanied by the Conservatory Orchestra. The Women’s Ensemble was directed by Dr. Michael McGaghie, a member of the Conservatory’s orchestral conducting faculty; he also directs the Concord Chorus and is the assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club. The Chorale was led by the Conservatory’s choral conducting faculty member, Dr. William Cutter, also the head of choral music at MIT.

The concert showcased the talents of the Conservatory students, who displayed a high level of technical proficiency, although these aspiring professionals also displayed certain musical shortcomings frequently found among younger performers. The majority of these issues are related to successful performance within an ensemble, a common challenge for Conservatory students who spend the majority of their time and effort in the realm of solo performance, as well as the awareness and execution of melodic and harmonic shapes not found on the written page.

Michael Praetorius’s brief motet, Ecce Maria genuit (a declaration of the doctrinal meaning of Jesus’s birth), directed by McGaghie, elucidated one of these issues: the members of the ensemble sang with a strong, powerful tone, yet there was very little differentiation of tone color or sense of melodic shape, two indispensible elements for the composer’s thick polychoral textures. This powerful “wall of musical sound” was simply inappropriate for this selection, as it did not allow the audience to appreciate Praetorius’s dance-inspired rhythms or subtle harmonic progressions.

The orchestra, which joined the chorus for Randall Thompson’s cantata, The Place of the Blest, showed an equally strong and impressive sound, though with a stronger sense of shape and contrast. The chorus’s sensitivity did improve in this number, though the inclination to sound production for its own sake seemed to win out, in the final summation.

Kelby Khan, a second-year master’s student in conducting at the Boston Conservatory, directed the Chorale’s opening selection, Daniel Pinkham’s Sinfonia Sacra (the “Chistmas Cantata”).The first movement of Pinkham’s cantata continued in the same fashion as the Women’s Ensemble’s performance. In the second movement, however, Khan very skillfully managed the execution of the choral chants, showing impressive control of gesture as well as clear communication with the ensemble. Under his direction, the ensemble also achieved an effective change from the predominantly ethereal mood to its powerful closing statement, “partere Dominum Christum (that carried our Lord Christ”). In the final movement, Khan clearly showed the dance rhythms in his gesture, though the singers did not always reflect these shapes. All in all, the young director gave a very admirable effort, showing considerable promise as both a conductor as a leader on the podium.

Following the intermission, the Chorale, joined again by the orchestra, performed J.S. Bach’s Magnificat. The work’s ubiquitous technical demands were handled well by the group, with one or two exceptions, though the issues of musical line and timbral contrast generally continued in this work. A number of choral entrances were quite weak (particularly at the opening of “Fecit potentiam” and “Sicut locutus est”); I felt that Cutter’s usually-steady direction could have been clearer at these points. The “fiery” moments of the work, particularly the “Omnes generationes”, served the chorus’s youthful exuberance quite well.

The Magnificat also featured a number of vocal and instrumental solos and small ensembles. Among the most impressive performances were those from vocalists Rebecca Palmer and George Milosh as well as flutists Michel Dew and Bethanne Walker. Rebecca Palmer, soprano soloist for the “Quia respexit humilitatem” (the Virgin Mary’s expression of humility before God), displayed impeccable technical aptitude complemented by smooth and mature tone; additionally, her clear grasp of the meaning of the text (down to the individual word) displayed a level of communication unparalleled among her fellow soloists. Tenor soloist George Milosh navigated the relentlessly fast-moving melismas of the “Deposuit” (a declaration of God’s justice) skillfully while creating a strong sense of melodic line and direction. Flutists Michel Dew and Bethanne Walker played the obbligato duet from the “Esurientes” (another declaration of God’s justice) at a high level of technical mastery, expressively shaping the dance-like musical lines, aided by their light and nimble articulations. Some soloists, however, were not as successful. The trumpet soloist, for example, did not seem adequately prepared for either the technical or artistic challenges. The English horn soloist had principally mastered the notes and rhythms of her solo, though she was frequently out of sync with her fellow ensemble members, particularly at important cadential points. The vocal soloist for the “Esurientes” seemed to place her sound rather far back in her throat, impeding the full release of her tone while also struggling with issues of breath control.

The excitement and exuberance of the final work, John Rutter’s Gloria, suited the group very well. Both chorus and orchestra displayed a great deal of power and control, with a much stronger consideration of musical line and tonal contrast. The contrast between the powerful first movement and the ethereal timbral tapestries of the second movement, for example, was very effectively executed by the entire ensemble; the solo vocal trio (Annie Smith and Danielle Relyea, sopranos, and Caitlin Miller, mezzo-soprano) very skillfully and artfully executed their brief solo. The long crescendo which closes the second movement was very powerful, effectively setting up the light and energetic final movement. The entire ensemble executed this closing section with a great deal of enthusiasm as well as technical precision, giving the program a powerful and festive finale.

The members of the Boston Conservatory ensembles have much to be proud of from their most recent concert, and I hope they will continue to work to improve upon the issues discussed, as they prepare to join the ranks of musical professionals.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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