General director Shannon Canavin raided Exsultemus’s chorus last night to replace an ailing soprano in the group’s “A Day at the Royal Abbey of Montmartre” concert at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge. Despite some singers only learning their parts hours before, Exsultemus produced an exhilarating program of chants and songs from early-17th-century France.
The Royal Abbey of Montmartre was a symbol of devotion as well as a thriving musical community located just outside of Paris. Previously believed to have been composed at a much later time, most of the abbey’s surviving music, according to new research, indicates that it was the work of Antoine Boesset (1586-1643), a prominent composer at the court of Louis XIII. Boesset’s works offer an opportunity to hear the transition away from Medieval plainchant to independent parts and textual clarity.
Soprano Canavin and mezzo Pamela Dellal were the only planned soloists, with sopranos Claire Raphaelson and Shari Alise Wilson drafted for solo duties from the chorus, and soprano Julia Steinbok sitting in as a last-minute guest. The shifting voices provided arresting textures alongside Boesset’s soaring lines, close harmonies and somewhat static rhythms. Canavin’s bright, diaphanous sound and Wilson’s darker, more centered instrument added a unique color to “Magnificat Anima Mea Dominum” (“My Soul Magnifies the Lord”). Raphaelson’s plusher tone and whispering delivery made “Quod Eva Tristis Abstulit” (“That Which Sad Eve Withdrew”) sound more like a dramatic scene than a recitation, and Steinbok added an earthier, almost conversational tone to “Beatus Vir Qui Timet Dominum” (“Blessed Is He Who Fears The Lord”). The contrasting voices didn’t always jell, for example in the Vexilla Regis hymn, and slips in intonation such as those of “Ave Regina Coelorum” (“Hail Queen of Heaven”) were to be expected, given the short preparation. Dellal provided rich harmonies underneath it all, blending seamlessly with the bevy of late additions.
It’s difficult to say whether the energy onstage was simply passion for the music, (understandable) edginess at sight-reading before an audience, or a combination of both. Either way, it worked. High tessituras and tight voicings such as those of “Veni Creator Spiritus”(“Come Holy Spirit and Creator”) resounded naturally from Canavin, Wilson and Dellal, as did the penetrating sound and falling imitations on “O Crux Ave, Spes Unica” (“Hail Cross, One Hope”). The “Dixit Dominus Domino Meo” (“The Lord Says to My Lord”) was enhanced by organically unfolding counterpoint between Canavin, Raphaelson, and Dellal, with clear, metrical rhythms from the continuo players prevalent here and throughout the program.
The program also included sacred airs de cour, songs for solo voice (in French rather than Latin) and lute intended for private performance. Despite some occasional thinness at the very top and a few unsteady entrances, Canavin struck an effectively plaintive atmosphere for “Pourrez Vous Bien M’abandonner?” (“Can You Really Abandon Me?”) and “Pour Mieux Franchir La Servitude” (“To Better Overcome the Servitude”). Dellal’s use of vibrato and faintly swelling phrases on “Grand Dieu, Que Les Secrets De Tes Saints Jugemens” (“Almighty God, the Secrets of Thy Sacred Rule”) may or may not be historically accurate, but in terms of performance it was an utterly convincing depiction of religious fervor.
The full complement of singers and instrumentalists was heard on “Dionysii Martyris” (“Dionysus the Martyr”), which alternated songlike sections for soloists and continuo with a capella chanting. Tight singing, sympathetic delivery, and a graceful, even beat made this a highlight of the evening. While Canavin’s informative program notes included full translations of all texts, most of the time the singers’ pinpoint diction and subtle inflection allowed listeners to focus on the singing rather than any literal translations. University Lutheran Church’s resonant yet warm acoustics only enhanced the music. Instead of historical curiosity or art music, Exsultemus treated these works as the spiritual expression of flesh-and-blood believers.