in: Reviews

December 19, 2011

Christmas from Chorus pro Musica

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The Chorus Pro Musica Christmas concert happened on December 16 at Old South Church, a fitting enough setting in any case but especially for CPM’s featured work, the Laud for the Nativity of the Lord by Ottorino Respighi for three soloists, chorus and small instrumental ensemble. The Respighi, which CPM seems not to have performed before, was mixed into a program that offered traditional holiday fare, some in modern settings, and some classic Christmas sing-along.

The program opened with a fairly straightforward but contrapuntally active a cappella setting of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw (both of them? Really?), in which Music Director Betsy Burleigh displayed a strong penchant for extreme dynamic contrasts, most notably in some hugely audience-pleasing short-range diminuendi. The chorus’s ensemble and phrasing were impeccable, especially in the tricky lines “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel/Shall come to Thee O Israel,” which church choirs and congregations usually render with a pause fatal to the meaning.

The remainder of the first half consisted of the Respighi, one of only two major chorus-and-instruments pieces completed by the composer of the Roman trilogy of tone poems and the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. Like his rough contemporary at the other end of Europe, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Respighi combined influences from Impressionism and Medieval modalism to create a sound simultaneously old and new. The Laud (the title is often rendered in English without “of the Lord” at the end, but a full translation from the Italian should have it), written in 1928-30, is a fine amalgam of both, as well as some fine harmonic tricks that reflect Respighi’s personal wit, such as the sudden chromatic harmonic bending of a modal melody. We would tell you more about the composer and the piece, but we stumbled across a remarkable presentation here, albeit in outline form, that tells you at least as much as you will likely want to know.

One thing we will remark on is the canny instrumentation — the ensemble comprises two flutes (Susan Thomas and Ellen Redman), oboe (Cheryl Bishkoff), English horn (Donna Cobert), two bassoons (Gregory Newton and Sebastian —“Sebastion” in the program — Chaves), triangle (Kim Petot), and piano four hands (Terry Halco and Roderick Phipps-Kettlewell). The emphasis on double reeds is a nod to the pastoral quality of the text, a 13th-century dialogue (well, trialogue, to be precise) attributed to the Umbrian Franciscan monk Jacopone di Todi. It is written in Dante-esque dialect, in which the Nativity tale is related from the viewpoint of the shepherds, whom Respighi assigns to a tenor solo (Gregory Zavracky) and the male choral singers. The other characters for whom soloists are assigned are an angel (Kathy Linger, soprano) and Mary (Majie Zeller, mezzo).

Burleigh began at a brisk pace (maybe a bit faster than she had rehearsed it, as some musical details got smudged). We thought the chorus was well together and in fine voice; once again, the pianissimi produced a thrilling effect, but also the big set-piece Gloria near the end was effective and packed the necessary punch. Linger’s phrasing and intonation were spot on, though her somewhat thin sound was sometimes overwhelmed by the chorus and ensemble. Her diction was a bit difficult to evaluate, as the text is non-standard Italian, but without the text before one’s eyes it was hard to decipher. Zeller has a much fuller sound, which carried pretty well and was the most dramatically effective of the three soloists. Zavracky’s tone was clarion, his voice powerful, and his pitch nicely centered.

Other works on the program, apart from the sing-alongs, included some interesting settings from Gaudete by Anders Öhrwall, a Swedish choral conductor, which displayed rhythmic vitality and some gentle modernisms of idiom. Alfred Burt’s setting of Bright, Bright the Holly Berries featured some occasionally quartal harmony, while Stephen Paulus’s rendition of The Holly and the Ivy was a from-scratch setting of the text with much commendable rhythmic urgency, despite its adherence to the strophic format of the carol — all well conveyed by CPM. We like this setting almost as much as that of Virgil Thomson.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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