What an (unfortunate) difference a year makes! In 2010, I reviewed the Oriana Consort’s fall concert (“Oriana offered peace and reflection”), and was duly impressed by the amateur chorus’s technical proficiency, ensemble, timbral blend, clear differentiation of musical styles, and expressive musical “readings” of the texts. In their most recent concert of December 9, given at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, the group maintained its solid ensemble and timbral blend, often displaying the same level of technical proficiency, though in general the other qualities listed above were considerably diminished. Most disappointing among these was the group’s “readings” of the texts, many of which came through as a single stream of sound.
The concert’s theme, “For Peace at Year’s End,” did not have a clear connection with the musical selections beyond the first set, though the individual sets themselves were carefully and thoughtfully planned. The first four sets offered multiple settings of a single text, or settings of related texts with a shared characteristic (such as macaronic texts in the second set); Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus served as the fifth and final set. As director Walter Chapin freely and honestly admitted, the program notes were hastily put together, featuring numerous typographical and grammatical errors; in general, the commentary seemed to offer more of a friendly discussion of the music than informational discourse. In the case of Martin’s Mass, many of the comments presented actually spoke to one of the composer’s other works (his anti-war cantata, In terra pax); this led to an unfortunate mischaracterization of the work as an expression, not of a “litany of religious belief,” but as “humanistic expression,” when in fact the work represented an expression of the composer’s deeply-held faith.
The first set, entitled “Setting the Mood,” opened with Jan Sweelinck’s well known setting of the Christmas-day introit, Hodie Christus natus est, followed by two prayers for peace set by contemporary composers Hugo Weisgall and Abbie Betinis. The Sweelinck, though performed with enthusiasm, came off somewhat formless due to an absence of “swing” in the triple-meter sections, as well as a lack of clear overall shape. The Weisgall and the Betinis, though displaying the group’s impressive ability to navigate dense harmonic formations, also seemed to lack a sense of overall form.
The second, third, and fourth sets featured “transformations” of popular carols, all of which were famously set by Michael Praetorius. Set two, in addition to Praetorius’s setting, featured works by Robert Lucas Pearsall and J.S. Bach; works for viol consort by Johann Walter and J.S Bach were performed between the vocal selections. The viol players got off to a shaky start, with a number of squeaking strings and missed notes, though the group eventually settled into a more stable performance. The highlight of these middle sets was the presentation of the opening section of Hugo Distler’s Die Weinachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story), the narration of which is interposed with verses of Praetorius’s setting of Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming. Alternating with the chorus’s peaceful renditions of the hymn, Laura Betinis’s expressive performance as the Virgin Mary was particularly enjoyable, served well by her warm, deep voice. The fourth set featured three different settings of A Boy Was Born, all by Praetorius. The closing selection of this set, unfortunately, embodied many of the weaker aspects of the group’s performance, including unshaped textual phrases, as well as a lack of an overall shape within the work; these issues were especially apparent in the refrain (“Sing, be joyful…”), which came off as slow and plodding, and to failed to express the ecstatic quality of the music and its text.
The concert was closed with Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus. In general, this selection continued to display the same mix of stronger and weaker characteristics found throughout the performance. The imitative textures at the opening of the “Kyrie eleison,” for example, turned into an undifferentiated “wall of sound” due to a lack of shape in the individual lines; the group did, however, affect a strong change of pace and tone quality for the central section (“Christe eleison”). The dense harmonies of the “Glora” were well executed, and its central section (“Domine Deus”) provided the most expressive portion of the entire concert. Chapin’s pacing within the “Credo,” though generally in keeping with the composer’s indication of “fast enough,” (rapide assez) seemed to “breeze past” many of the text’s statements of faith, which as mentioned above, were deeply held by the composer; on the other hand, the chorus executed a very nice buildup of dynamics and energy leading into the text on Christ’s resurrection (“Et resurrexit”). In the “Sanctus,” the group began to encounter an increasing number of technical issues. Chapin’s tempo for the “Agnus Dei” was very wisely chosen in view of the long-breathed phrases, though this closing section was plagued with continuing technical issues, as well as a lack of overall shape due to insufficient dynamic contrasts between its three large sections.