Conductor John Ehrlich’s unerring choices for The Spectrum Singers’ special Veterans’ Day program on November 12 at First Church Congregational in Cambridge made a convincing case that patriotism needn’t be jingoistic. The impulses presented in the texts and their resulting scores, written within an eight-year period between 1935 and 1943, all evinced a complex understanding of the emotions of war, victory, and loss. Composers and performers expressed vividly the emotions of rage against death (though not rage against the enemy), woe over loss, resignation, reconciliation, hope for victory, thanks for its achievement, and determination that war would never come again. The range of emotions in the evening was broad enough to encompass virtually every human feeling except love.
Poème Héroïque of French organist-composer Marcel Dupré opened the special concert. Written in 1935 to commemorate the restoration of the Verdun Cathedral after the depredations of the “War to end all wars,” it was scored for organ, brass, and field drum. Durpré presided at the dedication of the cathedral’s Theodore Jacquot instrument, which despite the 1935 date, was built in the French Romantic style. First Church’s 1972 Frobenius tracker was a poor substitute, generally inaudible. Nevertheless, brass and drums were sufficient to make Dupre’s celebration of the French victory palpable.
The principal piece of the first half, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, was presented in an uncredited arrangement for organ, piano, and strings that was believed by John Ehrlich to have been from the composer’s hand. The excellent string orchestra under concertmaster Jesse Irons played their respective original parts, with the missing wind, brass, and percussion parts seemingly parceled out to the busy pianist, James Barkovic, who handled the job admirably.
Alternating the Latin plea for peace with poetry of Walt Whitman, words of an English parliamentarian, and Biblical selections, the work in general avoids the composer’s sometimes bland English Pastoralism. In the opening, soprano Laura Serafino Harbert floated “Dona Nobis Pacem” over shimmering strings and was answered by an angrier version of the same words from the chorus in a recurring trope.
In Part II, Vaughan Williams set Whitman’s “Beat! beat! drums—blow! bugles! blow.” Though the accompaniment featured neither of those instruments, the effect seemed to suffer none for the loss. The entrance of the chorus was dramatic and terrifying; the words and their powerful setting evoked the hardly-changing pictures of war’s disastrous visitations on warrior and civilian.
Concertmaster Jesse Irons opened the “Reconciliation” section with a lustrous solo and set the stage for baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland’s emotional engagement with Whitman’s poetry. Cleveland handled the relatively high tessitura quite easily, though the effects of a cold were apparent in some sotto voce passages.
The thirty-three-voice chorus was effective throughout and very attentive to the text. Its dynamic range was broad, its coloring showing many hues, and its attacks were confident and simultaneous. The legato with staggered breathing was quite amazing at times. In the last section, John Ehrlich led the singers through rapid changes of mood and finally through a carefully planned crescendo to a well developed and rapturous climax.
At the opening of the second half the audience was startlingly alerted, by Dennis Sullivan’s extremely loud and powerful tympani strokes, that Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man had begun. The brass “undectet” followed in its familiar way with well-shaped vigor. John Ehrlich managed the forces well, and the effect was quite enlivening.
Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, commissioned by the University of Virginia Glee Club to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, is a stirring setting of the founder’s words. In its original form, it was for male chorus with piano accompaniment. Thompson adapted it for mixed chorus and then later orchestrated it. Though dismissed by critics as an occasional piece, it has remained popular with choruses and audiences and has been played on many important occasions, such as by short wave to the American troops during WWII, by the BSO at Carnegie Hall two days after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and by the National Symphony two days before the inauguration of Kennedy. It has also been featured in numerous September 11 memorials.
No strings or winds were on stage for the Thompson, since Ehrlich had chosen a 2007 arrangement by Randol Bass with accompaniment from brass, percussion, and organ. This was generally quite effective in the martial portions, though First Church Congregational’s Frobenius baroque tracker organ, even under the expert control of the excellent Heinrich Christensen, lacked the sumptuous stops needed to evoke the consoling qualities of an orchestral string section; and the tuba and bass trombone parts essentially covered the organ’s pedal part. The only really effective moment for the organ came in its well modulated duet with Paul Perfetti’s muted trumpet during the second section, “We have counted the cost of this contest…”
Throughout the Thompson, the Spectrum Singers sang with intense emotional involvement. Unlike the earlier Vaughan Williams piece in which the sinuous vocal writing tended to obscure the words, Thompson’s squarer style lined up parts and thus enabled the chorus to convey the almost spoken quality of the texts, even in the flattering reverberation of the church space.
Ultimately one did not miss the full orchestra. The chorus was the star, after all, and though it was surprising in the Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge to witness such a patriotic display, this was patriotism without nationalism or jingoism — rather patriotism of lofty ideals.
After the performance, tuba player Takatugo Hagiwara and bass trombonist Peter Cirelli were seen shaking hands, and yes, they both had an excellent and very busy evening. They said that they couldn’t remember having had more to do and enjoying it more in any other orchestral engagement. And apropos of engagements, the first trumpet Paul Perfetti deserves a salute (if that’s the right word to use after Veterans’ Day). He not only played brilliantly but also had another starring role, that of orchestra contractor. The string ensemble he assembled was bright, young, and excellent, and the brass and percussion were top drawer.
The entire unusual concert was quite moving. For Vietnam-era protesters, the Jeffersonian ideals so artfully set in the Testament of Freedom might have induced more of us to fight, if we had believed they applied to that conflict. Now the music and texts give us a satisfying welling up of pride in our foundational impulses. I hope that’s not chauvinism.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.