On Dec 12, the Oriana Consort presented their winter concert, “From five B’s in four centuries: Choral songs of peace and reflection,” at the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge; the “five B’s from four centuries” were William Byrd (1539-1623), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Anton Brückner (1824-1896), Samuel Barber (1910-1981), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), representing a wide range of musical styles as well as historical periods. The Consort was directed by William Chapin, who has spent more than thirty years in this role with the organization, and Caroline Harvey served as the Consort’s assistant conductor and accompanist. The group was joined by a small orchestra for the selections by J.S. Bach.
The amateur chorus displayed an impressive level of musical discipline and technical proficiency effectively utilizing a diverse textural and timbral palate, despite a handful of technical “bumps and bruises.” Chapin’s performance decisions appeared to be based on period performance practices, offering another level of interest to the performance itself. These historically-based decisions, particularly the periodic absence of a conductor or the use of a substitute conductor, occasionally led to a decrease of technical precision. The quality of performance from the instrumentalists ranged widely from performer to performer.
The Consort opened with a setting of the first two portions of the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, the “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” from William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, interposed with Byrd’s motet, “Beata virgo,” a mystical poem on the Virgin Mary’s heavenly beauty; this interposition of a motet between parts of the mass ordinary is in keeping with a common liturgical custom of the period. For these selections, the chorus sang with a light, ethereal sound quite appropriate for English Renaissance polyphony. The Consort’s well-shaped musical lines kept Byrd’s dense contrapuntal textures clear, avoiding the undifferentiated “wall of sound” heard in so many performances of polyphonic music today; the group’s contrast of tone color and vocal power also helped to communicate effectively the text’s theological meanings. Caroline Harvey conducted the motet (in keeping with the period practice of a “sub-conductor”), maintaining a steady pattern throughout the piece. Her gesture remained rather energetic at several cadential points, however, which may have been better served by a more relaxed gesture to reflect the melodic and harmonic repose at these musical points.
Leonard Bernstein’s setting of the Hashkivenu, a prayer for protection and peace found in the Sabbath Evening service of the Jewish liturgy, featured a “cantorial solo” by James Croft, with Harvey on the organ; both musicians served the music and text with technical proficiency and artistry, complementing the chorus’s dramatic and moving rendition.
Returning to the Catholic liturgy, the ensemble next performed Brückner’s a cappella motet, “Os justi” (the text excerpted from a Biblical psalm on the wisdom of the righteous); preceding the motet, a group of five male singers from the chorus performed the traditional Gregorian chant on the same text. The motet was executed with a high level of musical sensitivity through the utilization of a three-fold dynamic palate, which included powerful fortes as well as both intense and dramatically static pianos to accommodate each portion of the text.
For a motet for chorus and continuo, Komm Jesu Komm, popularly attributed to J.S. Bach, the continuo group included Henrik Broekman on chamber organ and Mai-Lan Broekman on viola da gamba; the continuo players offered steady and efficient accompaniment without overpowering the chorus. As in the concert’s earlier selections, the singers were expressive and sensitive to the text, although a more “masculine” vocal sound would have been a good contrast with the “feminine” polyphony of the Byrd. The central section of the first movement, “Der saure Weg/the bitter path,” presented the only instance of substantial technical struggle on the chorus’s part, though the group had fully recovered by the closing section of the movement, “Du bist der rechte Weg/You are the righteous way.” Soloist Kathryn Low ably handled the challenging tessitura with her powerful vocal timbre, displaying impressive skill for an amateur singer.
After intermission, the group was joined by a small orchestra of two violins, viola, cello, two oboes d’amore, violone, and chamber organ, for J.S. Bach’s cantata, Schwingt freudig euch empor/Soar joyfully upward! (BWV 36), one of Bach’s many “re-worked” liturgical pieces (the music for this cantata was first used for a secular composition). Although the chorus continued their effective and expressive performance in this piece, the orchestra left much to be desired: the upper strings were commonly out of sync with one another as well as the rest of the ensemble; the oboes, in addition to a number of technical errors, frequently overbalanced the vocal soloists. Violone player Mai-Lan Broekman, on the other hand, was both technically precise and artistically expressive, affecting what Baroque commentators might refer to as an “elegant performance with good musical discretion” (i.e. the understanding of when to use various tone colors, dynamics, etc). The work also featured three vocal solos as well as a duet; the final soloist, Jennifer Webb, displayed exceptional technical ability and artistry, creating a dramatic musical “reading” of the text. This movement also featured first violinist Joy Grimes, whose obbligato solo was performed with precision and elegance.
The concert’s closing set featured the two closing selections from Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices which opened the concert (i.e. the “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei”); as with the program’s opening set, Chapin interposed a Byrd motet, “Viderunt omnes” (a hymn of praise), between the two mass texts. For this set, the chorus returned to the light, ethereal sound of the opening set, though technical errors were a bit more frequent at this later point in the concert.
The concert concluded with Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, set to the music of his popular Adagio for Strings. The Consort rose admirably to the program’s finale, aided by a very wisely-chosen tempo which allowed the singers to expressively shape the highly fluid and long-breathed lines without creating undue strain on the singers’ respiratory capacity and endurance. The ensemble effectively shaped Barber’s unfolding variations, creating a moving musical climax, followed by a peaceful repose.