in: Reviews

March 14, 2011

Musica Sacra’s Disappointing Sameness


On March 12, Musica Sacra presented “One Text, Two Perspectives,” a program that featured paired settings of selected sacred texts. The concert was given at First Church in Cambridge, whose expansive sanctuary provided a space well suited to the program. The group was led by Mary Beekman, a long-time fixture with the organization. (A graduate of Harvard and the New England Conservatory, she is also a member of the music faculty at the Powers Music School in Belmont.) The chorus was joined by continuo players Shannon Snapp and Terry Halco on the ‘cello and organ, respectively.

Through its technical expertise and powerful purity of vocal timbre as well as an impressive level of ensemble unity and discipline, Musica Sacra displayed a level of achievement well above their amateur status that served certain selections very well, particularly Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard and Franz Biebl’s popular Ave Maria. The group applied this same vocal sound and musical style to the selections by Brahms, J.S. Bach, and Monteverdi, however, which resulted in a very disappointing lack of stylistic variety between the program’s highly contrasting musical styles, as well as a performance style simply inappropriate to the works of these latter composers. The temporal separation of the paired text settings on the opposite halves of the program (that is, “text A-B-C-D-E”, intermission, “text A-B-C-D-E”), weakened the comparative aspect of the performance. Additionally, this arrangement led to some weak programming arrangements, particularly in the anti-climatic close of the first half of the program with the “evaporative” ending of Monteverdi’s “Laudate Dominum” (from the Selva Morale of 1640) and the generally nonengaging start to the latter half of the program with a very brief setting of the “O Vos Omnes” text by Henrique Correa.

In O Vos Omnes (“O Ye Who Pass This Way”) by Alberto Ginastera (1916-83), the chorus offered a strong opening statement that effectively grasped the audience’s attention and handled the technical challenges of the work very well, though the blend was a bit top-heavy at certain points. Josquin’s popular Ave Maria was well served by the clarity of the group’s vocal timbre; the lack of characteristic contrast between individual sections of text, however, was disappointing. Also, this was the first of several pieces in which especially strong consonant articulations were given at moments which did not seem to call for them (in this case, the word “cujus,” the relative pronoun “whose,” a relatively insignificant word which in this case falls at a relatively insignificant musical moment). Following the Josquin was Brahms’s “Schaffe in mir, Gott” (“Make in me a clean heart, O God”) from his Two Motets, Op. 29; this piece is one of several sacred vocal works written by the composer as an expression of his admiration for the sacred vocal works of J.S. Bach. Again, the chorus’s mastery of the work’s technical challenges was impressive, though the lack of stylistic contrasts weakened the group’s presentation; this incongruity between technique and style was illustrated in the fugue, which, although well executed technically, became a “wall of sound” within the group’s unvaried timbres; the voices of the fugue were “stacked” on top of one another.

As mentioned above, the group’s sound was especially well suited to Whitacre’s When David Heard, an expansive work in the composer’s “hyper-Debussy-an” harmonic style that includes very “tall” harmonic stackings. (One example features eighteen individual parts, though this number includes a number of octave doublings). In Monteverdi’s above-mentioned “Laudate Dominum” from the Selva Morale of 1640, this “ripieno” motet featured a group of solo voices to which the full chorus would respond, as well as the continuo players, who offered a solid contribution to the selection. This motet was another example, however, of a lack of stylistic contrasts within the work (as dictated by the text), as well as a lack of distinction between the style of this work and other works on the program.

The Renaissance-style polyphonic motet on the “O Vos Omnes” text by Henrique Correa (1680 – c.1747) was very short and generally not engaging. The group’s performance of the selection was also unimpressive, as the melodic lines themselves featured no clear shape that I could detect, and again, no clear stylistic contrasts which seemed motivated by the text. Franz Biebl’s (1906-2001) Ave Maria (a piece made famous by the vocal performance group Chanticleer and still very popular among high school and collegiate groups), was one of the group’s most successful selections. The contrasts between the monophonic chants and the rich harmonies of the homophonic textures also featured the most dramatic and effective dynamic shapes within the entire program.

Allegri’s immortal Miserere Mei (“Have Mercy Upon Me”) is a motet that was once permitted performance only in the pope’s chapel. (According to popular legend, the young Mozart “stole” this piece from its home by transcribing the entire work from memory). Musica Sacra’s vocal timbre was ideally suited to this work, serving the pure harmonies with their pure vocal sound; the characteristic “high Cs” (that is, the C two octaves above “middle C”) of the refrains displayed impressive skill and control. Although the pacing seemed a bit rushed at times, the ritualistic-style declamation of the text was well served in this performance.

The concert closed with When David Heard by Thomas Tompkins(1572-1656) and J.S. Bach’s Lobet Den Herrn (“Praise the Lord”). Again, this pair of works raised the issues addressed above; both works were performed with the same vocal and musical style. The Tompkins was better served by this style, though as with certain of the works mentioned above, it lacked stylistic contrasts between textual sections; the Bach, though technically solid, was performed in a style that was historically inappropriate, in this case obscuring the thick contrapuntal texture within a wall of vocal sound.

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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