Andrew Shenton, the new artistic director of the Boston Choral Ensemble, walked into the chancel of First Church, Cambridge on the evening of Friday, November 18, and proceeded to lead the ensemble through an evening of choral music alternating between Tomás Luis de Victoria (2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the composer) and contemporary British composer Judith Weir.
At first glance I worried: who wouldn’t be, presenting the music of the marmoreal Counter-Reformation Renaissance with music from the exsanguinated British choral tradition? Certainly both traditions contain valuable, often interesting, works. But doesn’t combining the two threaten to spiral into an evening of straight-tone and unwavering lines? BCE, however, revealed that a happy alternative to this grim result is that both composes synthetically enhance each other — that between the intervening four hundred years, there’s the consistently surprising result: that Victoria can inform Weir (and — what’s more, the opposite direction) seems somehow improbable but, thankfully, true.
Under Shenton’s baton, BCE emphasized the interaction of these two composers by interspersing Victoria’s Missa Ascendens Christus in Altum with selections from Weir’s opus. The two composers present their own challenges. Certainly Victoria presents a more familiar tonal landscape. Although not without some difficulties with pitch and imitative entrances, members of BCE illustrated the complexities of his counterpoint with vivid detail, ably delineating clear lines of counterpoint and part-writing. First Church is ideal for this form of music — an open space that allows choral textures to grow and reverberate. BCE utilized this asset to its fullest extent to illustrate the complexities of Victoria’s complex writing.
And it proved useful to have Victoria in the ear when listening to Judith Weir’s works. Weir’s language is certainly strange, albeit not unfamiliar, and one that flourishes in contrast to Victoria’s compositions. Most intimate and engaged in the a cappella works of the evening, BCE’s Weir delved affably into vivid textures — incorporating a gratifying sound with a restraint and control that served the emotional content of the works. The 1989 Drop Down, Ye Heavens, From Above embraced a somehow elegaic tone, while other settings of George Herbert’s poetry — in particular, a 2005 setting that gave the concert its title, Vertue — found Weir at her most thoughtful, her most willing to illustrate and speak to an engaged audience. Yet a 2008 accompanied setting of Psalm 148 (Christopher Moore joined the ensemble on trombone), however, found a very different voice — a spare, detached sound world that occupied itself with an internalized reverie. Again, vividly illustrated with dramatic tone-painting, Shenton led the BCE in a more stentorian performance, nodding to the notions of affect inherent in the work yet refusing to genuflect to the text’s sentimentality. These are ambitious works, fraught with treacherous tonalities and unfamiliar motives, yet ultimately flourishing in the thorough commitment and engagement by the members of BCE.
Friday’s evening’s thesis, that the two composers, writing nearly half a millennium apart, inform each other, is not a novel conclusion, but one that is consistently surprising — that today’s musical language is fundamentally based in the music of the far past. Under Shenton’s direction on Friday, BCE yet again stunned us with this very obvious of conclusions, re-teaching its very basic lesson that culminated in a heartfelt applause from the audience gathered in First Church’s pews.
The concert ended with an invitation to the audience to participate in Weir’s Angel that Presided O’er My Birth, a work that will feature prominently into the ensemble’s December 17th collaborative concert (after such an intense and nuanced performance of intricate works, perhaps a too-over-zealous advertisement for BCE’s upcoming season?). BCE repeats this performance of works by Victoria and Weir in Mission Church on Sunday, November 20 at 3 pm in Boston’s Mission Hill.