On Sunday, January 22nd, the King’s Chapel Choir treated a healthy-sized audience to what they billed as “A Baltic Cruise” — a musical tour through choral works by composers hailing from Estonia, Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Poland, Russia and Finland. Led by the energetic and always musical Heinrich Christensen, the choir showcased their stylistic flexibility and rhythmic panache.
It was a pleasure to hear music that wasn’t pulled straight from the Eric Ericson repertoire list — not that there is anything wrong with Knut Nystedt or his music, but choir programs have begun to look a bit cliché, particularly when it comes to programming works from that part of the world. For the most part this program featured works by living composers, two of whom were born in the 1960s. Moreover, there was a lovely balance of sacred and secular, with diverse texts ranging from the Stabat mater to Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of time” which begins famously with the Carpe diem text, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”
The Stabat mater, in fact, was one of the highlights of the evening. The setting by Polish composer Anna Ignatowicz began at a surprisingly upbeat tempo with harmonies that were somber enough to convey the text, but not overly melancholy or rhetorical. In her solo singing, soprano Hannah McMeans’s gossamer voice shimmered above the tight harmonies of the chorus, who rendered the text sensitively if not always perfectly clearly. All the soloists for the evening’s program were drawn from the choir and it was clear that the ensemble boasts some very high quality voices.
Another beautiful solo moment was that of mezzo-soprano Laura Betinis in Nils Lindberg’s setting of Herrick’s text. Betinis’s voice had a richness made all the more beautiful by the edge of folk styling she brought to Lindberg’s piece. The alto section in general was quite good, often providing better rhythmic articulation, sharper and more precise diction than the other sections of the chorus. The other Lindberg work on the program, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, was lovely and unapologetically romantic, but the choir’s diction was inconsistent in quality. The ensemble interpreted the final couplet with excellent dramatic impact, but seemed uncomfortable with the harmonies on the first iteration of “life to thee.”
The basses and the altos both shone in Urmas Sisask’s Deo Gratias. This intriguing setting began with a charged ostinato in the basses, and it became increasingly contrapuntal in texture. The altos demonstrated incredible rhythmic accuracy in their syncopated and challenging entrances, never disrupting the momentum of the work, but instead dancing seamlessly in and out of the texture. Christensen’s direction also helped highlight the accents and shape of the phrases that gave the piece such tremendous flair. The ensemble should get a lot of mileage out of this piece — I hope to see it on future programs.
The chorus excelled in the rhythmically active pieces, and demonstrated their timbral versatility in the satirical and humorous Pseudo-Yoik by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. The program featured two other works by this composer, including a rather tender setting of the “Fairies’ lullaby” from Act II, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This work opened with some extraordinarily captivating falling chromatic lines that sank into a backdrop for Shakespeare’s text. The work, especially in its final bars, warrants close attention by conductor and chorus alike, and both Christensen and the ensemble were up to the challenge. The final work by Mäntyjärvi, No more Shakespeare Songs? seemed trite by comparison, and a somewhat lacking finale for what had otherwise been an excellent concert. The chorus did an admirable job of spitting out the text in the gradual accelerando, but the work paled in comparison to others performed that evening, such as Józef Swider’s textural and innovative Canticum Canticorum, a lively and fresh setting of the Song of Songs. Here the tenors offered a very solid and consistent sound, effectively compensating for some occasional scooping in the basses. The lower men’s voices, however, redeemed themselves with the absolutely lovely final chord on “amica mea.”
The only work on the program that was not a cappella was Arvo Pärt’s beautiful The Beatitudes which featured organ accompaniment. The choir opened with this work from the organ and choir loft of King’s Chapel. While the famous text is a litany of sorts, the chorus at times seemed a bit too dry and pragmatic in their approach. The gradual dynamic build was excellent, and there was a beautiful sense of connection as the piece moved in and out of its close dissonances. The inner voices kept the harmonies solid, and this was the one work on the program where the sopranos could have come out a bit more. Christensen’s organ playing, particularly in the final section, was sublime, but came across as almost startlingly dramatic given the static recitation of the chorus. This may have been an interpretive choice, I suspect, because the chorus produced such a ravishing and glorious chord on “Rejoice” in the final statement that they seemed a different choir altogether.
The weakest performance of the evening was The Garden of Roses by Yakov Gubanov. The solo parts seemed unwieldy and the soloists seemed too glued into their music, so much so that many times it was hard to tell who was singing. The work did showcase the group’s rhythmic energy in the faster section near the end, but the harmonies were unstable and the work lacked the finesse of the other fine performances on the program. Luckily, it was followed by a strong and appealing performance of Cyrillus Kreek’s Onnis on inimene. Kreek, who died in 1962, has not enjoyed the same international reputation as his fellow Estonian Arvo Pärt, but this work revealed a keen awareness of older techniques, while keeping the texture fresh and modern. The work featured lovely treble lines anchored by slowly moving lower voices. The treble voices kept the “Hallelujahs” rhythmically active against the intriguing modal sonorities. The men, likewise, maintained the buoyant spirit when the parts switch roles toward the end of the work.
While the bars of downtown Boston filled with the cheers and yells of Patriots fans, the rafters of King’s Chapel resonated with the sounds of singing and artistry brought forth by a very fine choir. The King’s Chapel Concert Series is a treasure for Boston concert-goers, and the Chapel’s “home-team” did themselves proud.