Sunday afternoon, June 5, the Chorus Pro Musica (CPM), under the direction of Betsy Burleigh at the end of her second season, presented a well chosen program of Psalm settings in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Some pieces were a capella, and some accompanied by members of the New England Philharmonic orchestra (Richard Pittman, Music Director). Burleigh conducted the entire program with elegance, clear and concise gestures, and gentle enthusiasm.
The program opened with a short Anthem for chorus alone by Cleveland composer Andrew Rindfleisch (b. 1963). This was commissioned by Burleigh for the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, which she also conducts, and premiered at the Library of Congress in February, 2009. The text is “an English version of Psalm 130,” according to the composer’s brief program note. Although this was an a capella piece, and the CPM’s diction is excellent, it was a shame that the chosen text (same or different from the English of Luther’s — see below) was not printed in the program, as was the case with the other works. It was a tough but grateful opener because of the need to maintain shimmering, sustained Debussy-like harmonies; even so, the chorus excelled. A chorus member sounded a minor third on the piano, and off they went, simply declaiming the text as softly as possible. The ending was stunning on the text, “Amen:” the altos sang a long sustained pitch, then taken over by the sopranos, as if one voice (even though a different color), using circular breathing. Such a simple, unusual, and successful device!
The next work, also a capella, was Francis Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, based on Psalm 81. Composed in 1941, it reflects his earlier deep study of Bach’s chorales and accordingly presents the brief but joyful text — all about the timbrel, psaltery, lute, and trumpet — in a declamatory fashion. The CPM did it proud.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Aus tiefer Noth schrei’ ich zu Dir (“Out of deep distress I call to you”), Psalm 130, was written in Rome in October, 1830. It is the only one of a number of his “Bachian chorale cantatas” that was published during his lifetime, as the first in his Drei Kirchenmusiken op.23 (Bonn, 1832). It is in five movements, of which the third and fourth were omitted in this performance, probably because of the solo voices and organ required. The first movement is a straightforward, fourteen-bar setting of the chorale, with German text as translated by Martin Luther. The second, using the same text, treats the chorale tune fugally, beginning with the basses and working straight up to the sopranos (although only the basses and the sopranos have the tune). The fifth movement is again a straightforward, but different setting of the same chorale, using the text of the second verse. Again the large chorus of seventy-five members enunciated clearly. Inevitably the individual chorale parts were not as crystal clear as one would hope, but admirable given the large numbers of non-professional singers.
The central work of the evening was a CPM commission, Expectans expectavi, composed by Minneapolis-based Abbie Betinis (b. 1980), premièred on this occasion. She was asked to write a piece that would complement Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The fact that she is a three-time cancer survivor affected both the composition and the performance; CPM offered 200 free tickets to friends, staff, family, and cancer survivors of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The text, of the piece, in Latin, is selected from Psalms 38, 39 and 40, blaming God, yet pleading for deliverance. The work is scored for soprano soloist (Bonnie Gleason), full chorus, flutes, oboe, English horn, bassoon, French horns, harp, timpani, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, bass drum, cellos and basses — i.e., generally a low instrumental timbre without clarinets, violins or violas. The work is a palindrome, beginning and ending quietly with the title text (in English, “I waited patiently for the Lord”). After repeating that line many times at the start, the music builds rapidly to a fortissmo, then softens briefly (“Hear my prayer, O Lord”) before introducing the soprano solo, “O Lord, make me know my end.” Again a rise to fortissimo on “Hear me, hear me, hear me.” The final plaint, actually the kernel or generating text, “Amove a me plagas tuas” (“Remove your scourges from me”) is set apart just before the piece ends with slow, quiet, sustained phrases in the winds, softly punctuated with pizzicati in the strings, and finally only the latter. It is a striking and dramatic piece, full of dissonance, as one might expect, with the chorus and instruments forging separate paths.
After intermission the composer took to the stage to deliver informal remarks about the generative musical devices in the piece, and then the work was performed again, to standing ovation, including previously overlooked recognition of Bonnie Gleason’s fine if brief performances in the central sections, soaring above the low instruments.
The afternoon culminated with Igor Stravinsky’s magnificent Symphony of Psalms, commissioned by Sergei Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the BSO in 1930, on that occasion performed with the members of the Cecilia Society. It uses two verses from Psalm 38, three from Psalm 39 (including “Expectans, expectavi dominum”), and almost all of Psalm 150 (numbering from the Vulgate). As Stravinsky has said, “It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The instrumentation is a fuller version of Betinis’s work, i.e. same instruments but more of them. In this performance they sometimes overwhelmed the chorus. But the instruments have a lot to say in this piece — many repetitions of same or similar motives, sudden punctuation, and then on to something else. The opening of the second Psalm, a difficult fugal play among flutes and oboes, beginning with two parts and swelling to six, was perfectly executed with the verve it needs. Nothing, however is as memorable as the altos’ opening and persistent half-step (e-f-f-e) on “Exaudi orationem meam, Domine” (“Hear my prayer, O Lord”), or the chorus’s opening of the third Psalm with the tentative, ethereal, “Alleluia,” followed by a rest, and then the tenors and basses, chanting in unison a firm, almost hammering, “Laudate,” repeatedly. A brief reminiscence of these two phrases closes the work poignantly, yet powerfully. This caring, nurturing performance certainly did it justice.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.