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Essential Voices: Palestrina & Co.


The 122 voices of the Back Bay Chorale presented a concert of polyphonic music ranging from Palestrina to MacMillan, with Scott Allen Jarrett conducting, and Justin Thomas Blackwell joining in on organ for the final three pieces on the program. Given at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 19th in Emmanuel Church, the concert, spanning six centuries of music, was both pleasurable and restorative.

The program opened with Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater, a compline antiphon which blossoms into glorious sound and which amply set the stage for the following concert.  Then the Chorale embarked on Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, singing the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo.  From the opening Kyrie, they were accomplished in their presentation of this magisterial work from solid cantus firmus to keening descant. Mr. Jarrett then programmed, with some evident trepidation (as manifested in his remarks), two works by Benjamin Britten:  Deus in adjutorium meum . . . (1945) and A Hymn to the Virgin (1930), the latter with a reduced choir singing the Latin responsories in the hymn. Afterwards, the Chorale concluded Palestrina’s Missa. I found the programming to be inspired: the collocation of Palestrina and Britten brought out polyphonic and modal similarities in the works of both composers, while also highlighting their different compositional voices. Further, as both Palestrina and Britten wrote for the acoustics of a church, this program foregrounded their contrasting approaches to the sound of amassed voices in a vaulted space.

The latter part of the concert (run without intermission) surveyed later composers making use of the foundations provided by Palestrina. We heard the brief Mendelssohn motet, Heilig, drawn from the German liturgy, with its rich textures recalling the earlier ones of Palestrina even as the overall effect is more anthemic. Next was Bruckner’s motet Os justi, WAB 30, a tripartite work in the Lydian mode which alternates between a simpler, older style and a more polyphonic middle section.  Bruckner recalls the Palestrina with its spare opening, as though drawn from the earlier church chants, before embarking on a more complex musical voyage, a contemplative setting of a meditative text. The Lydian mode carried over into Julian Wachner’s Arise, my love (1998) for choir and organ; this piece, written by the Back Bay Chorale’s third music director, sets text from the Song of Songs and provided a nice companion piece to the earlier works on the program. It opens in full-voiced anthem mode, then mines a calmer vein, ending with quiet conviction. The concert concluded with two works attesting to the musical range of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan: Padre Pio’s Prayer (2008), based on text translated by the composer from the early twentieth century Italian saint; and A New Song (1997), with text drawn from Psalms 96.

The Back Bay Chorale is to be praised for a good blending of voices through much of the lengthy concert, a varied range of dynamics (effectively deployed during the mystery section of the Palestrina, Credo) and a generally precise placement of consonants. This is remarkable for such a large vocal group. Scott Allen Jarrett produced clarity and evinced good use of dynamics in the acoustics of Emmanuel Church. He intoned the opening chant-lines of the Palestrina Credo, and elsewhere; it was a pleasure to hear his rich voice raised in song. The Palestrina, Benedictus, and the Mendelssohn, Heilig wobbled at the start, but quickly regained their bearings; the latter perhaps being more a matter of shifting musical bearings to accommodate the different exigencies of Mendelssohn.  There also seemed to be some awkwardness on the prominent tenor line “et conglorificatur” in the Credo. However none of these minor hiccups materially detracted.

My only regret was the programming of MacMillan’s Padre Pio’s Prayer. This work featured a more prominent organ line than any of the other works on the concert, and it shifted emphasis away from the amassed voices of the chorale. At the same time, the texture of the organ line was different from that in either of the other two pieces performed with organ. While Padre Pio’s Prayer is an interesting and worthy composition, I don’t think it was a good fit for this particular program. The Britten, however, about which Mr. Jarrett expressed such a concern, was a beautiful addition to the Palestrina.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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