in: Reviews

March 24, 2011

Cambridge Concentus’s Antiphonal Balance

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Cambridge Concentus gave their last concert of the season on Sunday afternoon, March 13, at the First Church, Congregational, where they are the Early Music Ensemble in Residence. They are in their fourth season. This reviewer had never heard of this ensemble, but this concert will emblazon it in my mind. The program consisted of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern’s Missa Christis resurgentis augmented by the same composer’s Sonata XI from Fidicinum sacro-profanum. Still, the concert lasted only an hour, which makes me think that the organization might redefine its mission.

First Church Congregational presents ideal acoustics for such a piece. Biber wrote his masses for Salzburg Cathedral, which has four platforms to situate the musicians. The Concentus replicated this arrangement: the trombones and trumpets in the back of the spacious platform, the soloists hugging the sides, the strings next on the left, and the basso continuo (organ and bass violin (!) in the center. Presiding over it all was the conductor, the estimable Joshua Rifkin, in his usual place.

The instrumentalists were David Kjar, trumpet I, who also doubles as one of two artistic directors along with violinist Marika Holmqvist; Tatiana Daubeck, the other violinist; two violists, Emily Rideout and Joy Grimes; Graham Dixon, trumpet II; two cornettists, Michael Collver and Chris Belluscio; three trombonists, Erik Schmalz, Liza Malamut, and Mack Ramsey;. The continuo group were bass violinist Zoe Weiss, organist Leon Schelhase, and bass Jacob Cooper.

The excellent singers were sopranos Ulrike Präger and Kelli Geoghegan, mezzo-sopranos Abigail Fischer and Katherine Growdon, tenors Patrick T. Waters and Michael Barrett, and basses Ulysses Thomas and Sumner Thompson.

The reason I mention all the musicians is because of the nature of the music. Often there is antiphonal counterbalance in which the brass play off one or more singers and vice versa. This is because seventeenth-century and earlier church music wanted to get the listener confused as to its source. There is a theological reason for this, which I won’t go into here. In Venice’s San Marco basilica, for instance, you cannot tell from where the music is issuing. Without Rifkin’s guiding hand…

The sonata that came in between the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei was played by some of the strings and the basso continuo. There are twelve such sonatas, and this one dates from 1682. The title says why it is appropriate for a mass, although polyphony does not figure in it. Rifkin did not conduct, but let the three strings stand.

In a program note, Rifkin remarked upon Biber’s long name and welcomed a chance to present such a mass, free from “crazy violin tunings.”

For their fifth season the Cambridge Concentus is planning a season of “firsts,” including the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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