Though it may seem counterintuitive to present early music at a new music concert, Juventas New Music Ensemble’s program “Through the Looking Glass: Old Sounds Reinvented,” did just that. In collaboration with Schola Cantorum of Boston, on November 18th at St. John Evangelist Church on Beacon Hill, Juventas offered a work by Josquin des Prez as a point of departure for new works that referred back to the sounds and concerns of earlier ages.
SJE has an acoustic, defined by a high ceiling and hard surfaces, that simultaneously ricochets and swallows sound. The opening remarks of Lidiya Yankovskaya and Frederick Jodry, music directors of Juventas and Schola Cantorum respectively, were unintelligible at a distance of twenty feet. Luckily for a small ensemble like Schola, which makes SJE its home base, its nine singers actually benefit from the reverb, assuming one is not straining to make out the words. We would hate to hear an orchestra there, though. The opening work, Josquin’s Responde mihi, sung a cappella, confirmed the unsigned program note’s observation that the music does not correspond to modern listeners’ expectation that sad or stern texts (this one, intended for the Matins of the Dead liturgy, is from Job, and begins “Answer me, how many are my iniquities and misdeeds?” and goes on in similar mien) would be set to minor-mode and would be solemnly intoned. Josquin’s rhythms seem cheekily bouncy, though surely no satire was intended by him or the performers. The Schola’s performance, led by Jodry from within the ensemble, after a bit of wobbly intonation at the outset, was clear, clean and well blended, allowing the listener to follow the intricacies of Josquin’s lines. We will be the first to acknowledge lack of expertise in this genre, but from where we sat, literally and figuratively, it sounded well done.
What constitutes new and old music being relative for new music groups; we would guess that Juventas would consider Arvo Pärt’s 1985 Stabat Mater to fall in the latter category. Originally for only three voices (soprano, alto and tenor) and string trio, Pärt rescored it for full chorus and orchestra in 2008. The version performed Friday (there were repeat performances Saturday in Providence and Sunday at Boston Conservatory) was a hybrid, using the small Schola choir and the string trio, comprising Yohanan Chendler, violin, Drew Ricciardi, viola and Rachel Arnold, cello, again directed by Jodry. Composed with Pärt’s characteristic blend of scalar and arpeggiated passages, it begins with a “sinfonia” featuring a descending three-note scalar motif that makes sometimes pungent interlocking patterns among the instruments. The chorus enters wordlessly to similar effect, and this pattern continues, now expanding, now contracting. The text proper begins on a different tune. While holding his basic ideas, Pärt achieves great variety with rhythmic transformations, in fine Renaissance-cum-Minimalist fashion. It’s a powerfully moving work, sometimes giving off hints of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Its expressive restraint becomes its own highly charged antithesis. The performances were apt and unobtrusive to the overall effect. Marc Donnelly, alto, in particular impressed with a beautifully floating descant solo.
Three works followed intermission. The first was the premiere of Derek David’s “Daphne’s aria” from a scenic cantata called Apollo and Daphne after Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this scene, Daphne (Sudie Marcuse, soprano) implores her father, Perseus (Jodry, baritone) not to insist that she marry — men and sex being so icky and all that — while Perseus protests and grudgingly relents. David has chosen to set Ovid’s Latin in church/mediæval style rather than classical pronunciation, and the singers seemed to grace the church’s rough handling of words in a neo-Romantic musical idiom. Daphne’s lines soar and plead, while Perseus’s are gruff and matter-of-factly parlando. The instrumental parts, for flute (Zachary Jay), violin (Chendler), viola (Ricciardi), viola da gamba (Douglas Kelley; a nice touch in orchestration), piano (Julia Scott Carey; this part would have sounded better on a harpsichord), were obviously influenced by Baroque settings of classical literature and legends. This short excerpt, conducted by Yankovskaya, was intriguing and left us wanting to hear the rest of the cantata.
Oliver Caplan is a former conductor for Juventas. His Song on May Morning, a setting of an uncharacteristically cheerful poem by Milton (“Hail bounteous May that dost inspire/Mirth and youth, and warm desire” are not sentiments one normally associates with devout Puritans, except for the wayward sort who inspired Hanson’s Merrymount). To go even farther afield, Caplan’s idiom and style of vocal setting–for chorus, flute (Jay), clarinet (Alexis Lanz), violin (Chendler), cello (Arnold) and piano (Carey)–reminded us of the Tintin characters Thompson and Thomson, in this case Randall and Virgil, respectively. This mellifluous work, of which this performance was the premiere, may find great favor among high school and college choruses; we couldn’t see much of interest below its friendly and genial surface. The ensemble, conducted by Jodry, gave a chipper and seemingly accurate performance.
The program ended with another Stabat Mater, this one a 2007 work by Dominick DiOrio, who now plies composing and choral conducting in the Houston area. This setting adopts quite a different approach from that of Pärt or, indeed, most other composers. Like Brahms’s and Hindemith’s “requiems” DiOrio has forgone the traditional liturgical texts and set a variety of other sacred and secular ones —specifically, the three vocal movements of this five-movement piece set, are Whitman, the Ave Maria, and Dickinson. These are bookended by instrumental sections, “La méditation au Corps Cassé” and an Epitaph. The Whitman, “In midnight sleep,” and the Dickinson, “This world is not conclusion,” are for countertenor (Martin Near) and ensemble, while the Ave Maria uses the entire chorus with the countertenor. The opening meditation displays martial flourishes, a fitting introduction to Whitman’s Civil War poem, in which the poet berates himself for his “callous composure” in the face of carnage and death, only to be pursued by the recurring nightmare of what he saw. DiOrio’s setting is highly effective, in a lucid modern idiom, with Near’s sweet tone well conveying the placid denial of brutal reality (the words, alas, rendered undecipherable). The emotional punch of this movement is paradoxically weakened as DiOrio progressed to a more directly expressive mode toward the end. The Ave Maria is one of the most striking modern settings we have heard, and was our favorite bit of music for the evening. The chorus and ensemble (Jay, Lanz, Ricciardi, Arnold, Carey, Kelley, and Brian Calhoon, percussion, Yankovskaya conducting) embodied the literally iconic dignity of Mary, here not the mater dolorosa but rather the serene recipient of human supplication. The Dickinson setting, as is the wont of modern writing, ignores the poem’s metrics and conveys instead a sense of urgency that also seems contrapuntal to the gentle optimism of the text. The composer’s note on the work said it contained “no hint of optimism…” Yet the Dickinson poem reads that way, so one wonders why DiOrio felt compelled to use it. The closing Epitaph, somber in tone and spare in sonority, featured highly evocative clarinet lines, beautifully conveyed by Lanz, and some very fine and delicate playing by percussionist Calhoon.