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King’s Chapel’s Musical History Well Delivered


Billings engraving by Paul Revere

It was heartening to see a goodly number of attendees at the choral concert at King’s Chapel on January 23, a very frosty Sunday evening. Nestled in the box pews, the audience came for the unique combination of history and modernity that the program promised and were not disappointed. Entitled “Our History, Our Future,” in celebration of the 325th anniversary of King’s Chapel, the concert embodied “history” through a cappella works by composers who have graced the church’s (and more widely, Boston’s) musical history: William Billings (1746-1800), John Wheeler Tufts (1825- 1908), and Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006). Representing the “future” were four world premieres by composers James Woodman, David Carney, Carson Cooman, and Heinrich Christensen, King’s Chapel’s organist and music director. Interspersed with historical narratives read by the Rev. Mr. Joseph Bassett, who is currently engaged in compiling materials for the next volume of The Annals of King’s Chapel, the music seamlessly wove in and out of the centuries, tying together rich traditions of Anglican psalmody with modern trends in choral composition and standard service music.

The King’s Chapel choir and soloists offered some of the best diction I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in any choral concert, so much so that I barely glanced at the texts included in the program. Particularly in a work like Tufts’ I look to Thee in Every Need, which carried the characteristic warmth of 19th-century hymnody but not a lot of musical intricacy, the beautifully articulated texts brought forth a level of expression that would be easy to take for granted. The crisp final consonants in Billings’ Independence maintained the dancing and lively spirit of the work, which suffered only in that not all the voices in each individual section shared the same expressive idea. The opening work on the program, William Billings’ Wake Ev’ry Breath, utilized the wonderful space that is King’s Chapel, with soloists placed in the balconies for the initial canonic entrances and then finally processing downstairs to come together as an ensemble in front of the sanctuary. It is the music for this piece that adorns the cover of Billings’ most famous collection, The New England Psalm Singer, with an engraving by Paul Revere. Beginning the concert with Billings Wake Ev’ry Breath and Independence recognized Boston’s rich musical history and the history of King’s Chapel, where Billings taught his singing schools. (He is buried in Central Graveyard that lies at the edge of Boston Common near Boylston Street.)

Christensen’s new work, Lord of the Worlds Below, offered a stylistic timeline across the five verses of text by the Rev. James Freeman (1810-1888), who officially converted the congregation to Unitarianism and revised the Book of Common Prayer. It always gives me pause when I see a composer represent his own music as “in the style of,” but in this case it was apt, as Christensen very intentionally encapsulated musical history, providing a microcosmic representation of the concert as a whole. The first verse was certainly in the style of Billings, followed by a more high Classical rendering of the second stanza, and then a third stanza which very easily could have been by Brahms, as Christensen states in his program notes. It was the final two verses, however, that I found most stunning in both the scoring and the performance. Christensen chose not to obfuscate the hymn tune (Darwall’s 148th) in Freeman’s “autumn” verse, carried admirably by the tenors with gorgeous tone, and even what the composer described as “bone-crunching icy dissonances” in the final “winter” verse never led the music away from the beauty of the text.

David Carney characterized his The Covenant of King’s Chapel as something “much closer to a piece of service music.” As with the Billings pieces, the chorus brought the same excellent rhythmic articulation to the music, and this “service music” had a rightful place in this particular concert.

In keeping with the historical revue, the three works by Daniel Pinkham (music director at King’s Chapel for over four decades) spanned the range of his tenure there. Most impressive was the 1970 In the Beginning of Creation; it is not strictly a cappella, as it is scored for chorus and a tape created by Pinkham featuring an assortment of sounds from a Buchla synthesizer. The opening recalled a “chaos” tradition, if one can claim such a thing, seen in works as disparate as Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Élémens (1737) and Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (1798), but in the language of 1970s tape music. The choir handled the ad libitum sections — or what I assume were ad libitum without benefit of the score — easily, producing stunning glissandi and highlighting Pinkham’s well-crafted word painting.

The final work on the program, the premiere of Carson Cooman’s O Lord, I Will Sing of Your Love Forever sojourns through Scriptural texts, specifically Zechariah, Luke, Matthew and John, and is book-ended with texts from Psalm 89 and Psalm 103. The final ‘Alleluia’ recalled the gentle peace of Randall Thompson’s famous work, with quiet imitative entrances building toward a climactic exuberance but ending ultimately with humility and reverence. Christensen’s exacting direction gave life to the texts set so sensitively by Cooman. Some of the soprano voices were extended beyond a comfortable range, abetted no doubt by fatigue at the end of a challenging concert. What never faltered was the energy of the choir’s delivery and the unified attention to detail whether in a chorale, fugato, or the percussive whispers in the Pinkham.

At the end of the concert, the choir had a surprise for their esteemed director. Ushering Christensen to a chair in the middle of the aisle, the choir performed a work entitled Pipers by Graham Ramsay, who conducted the ensemble. The work, which featured Vanessa Holroyd on flute and piccolo, set an intriguing text by Alice Weaver Flaherty that honors the power of a “Kapellmeister” whose music, like that of the Pied Piper, “chases the vermin from our heads” and “whose songs entice us to sing as one.” This was a different choir in some respects than that which we heard during the formal program. Clearly injected with the enthusiasm of homage to their director, the choir fully embraced the text, “Music takes us out of our small boxes. Music brings us to a greater place.” Indeed, the choir leapt from the refined elegance of much of New England’s cultivated sacred music, into very visceral jubilation and gratitude to be able to lift every voice and sing.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.

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