On Saturday, April 16, at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Beacon Hill, Schola Cantorum of Boston celebrated its twenty-fifth season with an interesting and somewhat unusual program of music spanning nearly two centuries. Under the direction of its founder Frederick Jodry, the group skillfully performed liturgical choral works from the early 1400s to the late 1500s, all linked by the topic of the Annunciation. The title of the concert, Missa “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord”) refers to the mass by fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay. Though this work was featured on the program, it is too short to have been the feature work; instead, it was one of eight works by four countrymen of Dufay and, oddly, one Spaniard.
Perhaps not so oddly, however. The Spaniard in question is Tomas Luis Victoria, the latest of the composers on the program. It was his motet O lux et decus (“O light and splendor”) that opened the concert and set the tone for the whole evening. The Cantorum performed this work at a fairly quick pace, emphasizing its energy and brightness. It also established the less-than-typical musical character and interpretative approach of the group itself: rather than attempting to bring careful clarity to each melodic line, as so many similar ensembles do, they instead illuminated Victoria’s complex polyphonic texture as a single, shining sonic entity, capturing the spirit rather than the construction of the piece.
This handling of polyphony served the singers well in those rich, fully-voiced sections that are found in nearly all the pieces they offered. It resulted in an appropriately poignant and expressive performance of the other work by Victoria on the program, his aching Vere languores nostros (“Truly he has born our grief”), though here the pacing was a bit too brisk to truly capture the long, keening vocal lines that give the work its real power. It also brought to the fore the ethereal beauty of Josquin des Pres’ occasional and luminous homo-rhythmic textures. It is an expressive device favored by this composer, one that the Cantorum delivered with rare richness in his Inviolata that opened the second half of the program (preceded by a surprisingly touching rendition of the chant by the same name that serves as the cantus firmus).
The only points in the program that seemed to give the group some trouble were those in which the musical textures were thinner. The earlier Franco-Flemish composers, the music of previous generations still in their ears, wrote works inhabited by more exposed vocal lines and hollow, third-less cadences. The stolidity of these sounds proved to be a bit of challenge to the group, so that the dark, Burgundian sonorities of Loyset Compare’s Ave Maria came off as somewhat dull, especially since it was sandwiched between the two more colorful works by Victoria.
Overall however, the Lowland composers were done more than justice. Despite the curious choice of splitting up the parts of Dufay’s mass, placing the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” at the end of the first half and the “Sanctus” and “Agnus dei” at the end of the second, the Cantorum performed the work with satisfying musicality. Their interpretation of the “Gloria” was particularly enlightening: with clear, crisp diction and a bouncy tempo, they found a joy in the music that many overlook. The multi-text motet Ut te per omnes/Ingens alumnus Padue (“Enlighten our unclean spirits/The famous offspring of Padua”) by Johanes Ciconia, the earliest composer on the program, was given a fleet tempo and startlingly pointed articulation that brought out a surprising rhythmic texture; for lack of a better word, it was the grooviest Ciconia one is likely to hear. Similarly, their approach to Orlando de Lasso’s four-section Missus est Angelus Gabriel demonstrated a keen interpretive insight. The text of the work is essentially a narrative describing in detail the events of the Annunciation. Directness of musical narration seems antithetical to and almost incompatible with the involved and often obfuscating polyphony of the time. But Orlando was a masterful enough composer to build the immediacy of storytelling into the complexity of the work; and, much to the delight of the small but very appreciative audience in the church that evening, the Schola Cantorum is a good enough group to have found it.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.