Butterfly Dreams, Boston Choral Ensemble’s program of last night, was named after John Tavener’s work that figures prominently as the central piece. The concert was the second of BCE’s main-series concerts under the new leadership of Boston University’s Andrew Shenton; whereas the first concert provided an in-depth pairing of Tomás Luis de Victoria with contemporary composer Judith Weir (reviewed here), Friday’s concert provided a more whimsical subject, connecting various works under a large umbrella of “dreams.” It will be repeated Sunday, March 11, at 3pm in Boston’s Old South Church.
Audience members entered into the nave of Cambridge’s First Church to find the performance space bedecked with Christmas lights and candles and a projector displaying images of butterflies and trivia, as pre-concert entertainment. The entire concert was presented in three sections, cleverly entitled REM Cycle I, II and III, each consisting of three pieces. (REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, refers to the period of sleep during which dreams occur.)
REM Cycle I began with Eric Whitacre’s 1999 composition, Sleep. BCE’s performance under Shenton utilized the resonant acoustics of First Church to its fullest extent, providing a sharp read that remained sensitive to the significant dynamic contrasts while maintaining an appropriately restrained tempo. This approach worked well for Huub de Lange’s setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dream Within a Dream, utilizing a similar tack to Whitacre’s Sleep, (yet, to be sure, a very different language). It was difficult not to wonder if the third piece, John Dowland’s partsong, Come, Heavy Sleep should have required a different touch, as it lost some of its detail and grace in the nave of First Church.
REM Cycle II presented some of the more challenging works of the evening — if not for the choir, certainly for the audience. The section opened with a well-balanced performance of Brahms’s Wiegenlied and progressed to Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams. The nine-movement work explores translations of Japanese haikus, poetry from the Jewish getto, and Chinese and Native American traditions. Tavener’s illustrations are treacherous, shifting textures and musical languages on a dime; yet BCE showed strict adherence to Shenton’s direction for these dynamic shifts. Of particular note was Joanna Hamilton’s mournful, yet powerful, performance of the seventh movement of the work, the butterfly song from the Acoma Native Americans. Cycle II concluded with Judith Weir’s setting of ee cummings’s i thank you God, entitled a blue true dream of sky, for soprano solo, choir and alto duet. Here, Weir constructs a cognitive dissonance between the three constituent ensembles, swapping texts and melodic lines in a musical syntax that only makes sense in the world of cummings. Again, these transitions were seamless — and moreover, fitting — in the hands of Shenton and BCE. Liz Bologna, soprano soloist for Weir’s work, gave a particularly moving performance.
REM Cycle III consisted of some of the more entertaining works of the evening. This third section began with Richard Sherman’s haunting lullaby, Hushabye Mountain, scored for four soloists and full choir, and concluded with two works by Eric Whitacre. BCE showed incredible stamina and discipline in performing Leonardo dreams of his flying machine — in Shenton’s description, a short, nine-minute opera. The work is not only rhythmically and harmonically challenging but also, with the addition of extended vocal sound effects and long lines of repeated notes, physically challenging. Friday’s concert concluded Whitacre’s i thank you God for most this amazing day — another setting of Cummings’s poem. In contrast to Weir’s work, Whitacre’s setting is far more concerned with new-age sonorities and piercing dissonances, ultimately creating an ethereal cloud of sound. The effect, although perfect for the cavernous nave of First Church, is also somehow cloyingly affable. Regardless, the piece provided a satisfying close to Friday’s concert, which was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience; the audience was rewarded with a reprise of Brahms’s Wiegenlied.
A short concert (the performance, including speeches and introductions, lasted only a few minutes more than an hour), it showed the remarkable diversity of abilities for the young ensemble under new leadership. (BCE is only now in its 11th year, and its median age is somewhere firmly in the mid-twenties.) Given the darker music of the first concert of the ensemble’s season, it was refreshing to see a lighter take on some important contemporary composers and their work. The ensemble concludes its season with a program of works commissioned for the Chichester Cathedral, including the results of the ensemble’s 2012 Commission Competition winner.