Before stereo speakers or multi-channel boards, composers mixed acoustic voices and produced music through divided vocal and instrumental choirs. The spatial and textural variety of these cori spezzati was the focus of Exsultemus’s similarly named program on Saturday night, when the historically informed choir was joined by a sextet of instrumentalists at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge. (This program will be repeated on Sunday, January 29 at 3:00pm at First Lutheran Church of Boston.)
Exsultemus’ Music Director and countertenor Martin Near described this program as a journey beginning in late Renaissance Venice and moving up north and forward chronologically to Germany during the early Baroque era. This comparatively short historical period offered a wide musical survey, from the straightforward, solemn poly-chorality of Adrian Willaert’s Credidi, propter quod locutus sum (“I believed, therefore I have spoken”) to the intricate parts and pathos of Michael Praetorius’s Gelobet und gepreiset (“Hail and Praise.”) Along the way polyphonic, homophonic, harmonic and concertante effects alternated and occasionally blended, indicating that stylistic transitions arise suddenly and don’t always die out before the next development comes around.
Near’s creativity in arranging these five voices and six instrumentalists, physically as well as musically, highlighted the variety of these mostly sacred works while never sacrificing their textual gravity. Two stage-front choirs pitted against ethereal harmonies from a third choir at the back of the altar on Giovanni Gabrieli’s Magnificat, climaxing with a massive, “heavenly” 11-part tutti finale, illustrated the ensemble’s sheer power, while the voicing for two tenors with two sackbuts on Andrea Gabrieli’s Exsurgat Deus (“God, arise”) showcased this group’s ability to take an otherwise academic detail and underscore its importance as a captivating sound.
These multifaceted works galvanized the unity of sound and clarity of execution Exsultemus has come to be known for. Near and soprano (as well as founder and General Director) Shannon Canavin provided full, focused leads in ensembles, especially Canavin’s ebullient lines in Dominique Phinot’s À Dieu, Loyse. Tenors Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder filled out middle parts seamlessly while offering assured solos, and Paul Max Tipton anchored the choir with his firm, mellifluous baritone. Heinrich Schütz’s Lobe den Herren (“Praise the Lord”) allowed more room to hear each voice one at a time, especially a lengthy, dramatic thanks to God from Wilder. For Orlande de Lassus’ paean to wine (and the only secular text in the program) “Iam lucis orto sidere,” the voices poured over one another with transparent sheen.
The addition of winds and brass allowed the choir an even wider palette of colors. Michael Collver’s cornetto provided stirring, brassy commentary throughout, trading descending imitations with Near on Giovanni Gabrieli’s Hodie completi sunt (“Today they are full”) and Daniel Stillman’s alto and bass dulcians added rich, reedy interiors. All four players broke out recorders for the playfully regal “Suite 15” from Johann Schein’s instrumental Banchetto Musicale. The use of Andrus Madsen and Vivian Montgomery’s organ accompaniment throughout (based on Near’s theory that the Baroque continuo was merely a codification of earlier, more spontaneous practices) fleshed out the sound of the ensemble and provided further timbral contrast. Madsen also ascended to the church’s pipe organ, playing with a spontaneity that made Claudio Merulo’s virtuosic Toccata none del non a Tono (“Tocatta Nine of the Ninth Tone”) sound improvised.
If a program of 16th-century sacred music for divided choir sounds limited, it was news Saturday night. Exsultemus embraced this music with curiosity as well as technical confidence. By the end of the evening, the sight of one player reading their part off of an iPad made perfect sense; the music seemed to belong as much to this age and its living, lively performers (and audience) as any other.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.