Founded by former choristers of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Choir (whose Kapellmeister was once one J. S. Bach), ensemble amarcord (the group eschews a capital “a”) presented its Boston debut as part of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Concert Series on April 3.
The first half of the concert offered a tour of “European Romanticism,” beginning with the Saint-Saëns Sérénade d’hiver. The beloved’s sunshine found a perfect match in the sunny weather casting a warm glow on the concert space – an auspicious beginning to a very good concert. Quoting from the final line of the first piece, amarcord announced that the concert meditated on themes near to their hearts – women and poetry. The reference to music was an obvious addition; that to downhill skiing served to explain one bass walking on with crutches and singing from a stool (but who remained an undiminished voice and presence throughout).
On to Germany, with four of Schumann’s Sechs Lieder für vierstimmigen Männerchor, Op. 33, continuing themes of poetry and music, spring and love. From Germany a slight shift to the Moravia of Janácek: Ctverice muzských sboru, sung in the German translation by Max Brod. This 1886 work records and transcends the folksong originals – Drohung, about the fickleness of a man’s beloved; O Liebe! about fleeting love; Ach, Krieg, Krieg! about Janós going off to war and reluctantly leaving his girl behind; and Deine schönen Augen (setting a poem by Jaroslav Tichy) about the beloved’s beautiful eyes. This tour of European Romanticism ended in England, or Greece, with Elgar, From the Greek Anthology, Op. 45, including, appropriately enough, After many a dusty mile, about the ardor of travel and relaxing with song along the way.
These musical selections are not easy works, calling for precise intonation, rhythmic integrity, quick modulations, and rapid shifts of mood. The performance proceeded so tightly, so coherently, I easily forgot the challenges faced and surmounted. There is a seemingly effortless ensemble among the members of amarcord, no obvious leader or cues, yet each minutely attuned to the others. With their precise placement of consonants and articulation, there is clearly a single, shared musical impulse among the five singers. Only once did I notice a slip: in Elgar, Yea, cast me from the heights of the mountains, the singers were divided on the English or German pronunciation of the name “Zeus.” This is a small slip, serving only to remind us that amarcord singers are, after all, human. Their own captivation with the music drew the audience into the performance. At the same time, their witty comments during remarks between sets about the music, and a certain amount of acting out the dramas of the songs, enhanced the audience’s appreciation.
For the second half of the concert, amarcord presented a selection of world folk songs, with country and title announced from the stage. The offerings, all in their original languages, included: in German, Es klappert die Mühle (one bass providing an ostinato clacking of the mill); a Norwegian song arranged by Grieg about a family of cats singing on rooftops, the pathetic and humorous meowing of a tenor expressing the discomfort of frozen paws; from Ireland, and in honor of the ensemble’s first visit to Boston, Cockles and Mussels; from Japan, Sakura Sakura, about cherry blossom season (a time of spring, a time of hope); from Cuba, an up-tempo Habañera, tu (with bass sound effects); from Sweden a tale of summer love, the young woman jilting the poor blacksmith for a rich man at the fall fair; and from Korea, another sad love song (this one arranged for amarcord by Juan Garcia), including a tenor “singing” the part of the haegeum (traditional Korean bowed-string instrument). The concert concluded with a set of American folk-songs, 900 Miles, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Lullaby of Birdland (with a bass singing the part of double-bass, including an extended jazz-style bass riff) and, as encore, Hit the Road, Jack. These folk songs were performed with the same accuracy and coherence as the works in the first half of the program, enhancing the inherent charm and feeling. The diction and rhythm of the American songs did not sound stilted or foreign – a strong indication of amarcord’s vocal prowess.
It is a pity that the Pozen Center is not a good acoustic space for an a capella group. The sound overall was often subdued and quiet, through no fault of the singers. One had to work to listen, and I am grateful amarcord worked to bring the audience into the music. I had hoped hearing the Elgar performed underneath plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze (even obscured by lighting beams) might lend a certain charm; that hope was dashed. May amarcord soon return to perform in a better space.
Finally, I must applaud the magnanimity of the performers. A trained vocal quintet, amarcord became a sextet during two English-language songs on the second half of the program, courtesy of an audience member behind me. The rhythms and harmonies added to the concert were less precise than amarcord’s usual level, but this did not diminish the caliber of the performance coming from the stage. I heartily applaud amarcord for maintaining their artistic integrity during these moments, as also during the near-obligatory ringing of a cellphone. Their singing during these additions to the concert are a testament to their professionalism and polish.
Members of WGBH’s Classical Club will have the opportunity to hear amarcord broadcast on 99.5 fm in the near future.