Ralph Vaughan Williams crossed the Atlantic to find inspiration in one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass, from which the text of Williams’s A Sea Symphony is taken, exhibits the transcendent and humanist qualities for which the poet is noted. It appealed to the composer, a young but mature 38 years of age. An integrated work for chorus and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists, the symphony represents Vaughan Williams at an earlier stage in his long career, but definitely signaled the beginnings of a major influence on subsequent British composers. In fact, this work established a definite alternative for British composition that deviated from the prevailing German symphonic models.
The Metropolitan Chorale of Brookline, under the direction of Lisa Graham (also the principal choral leader at Wellesley College), an auditioned group of some 80 singers, was accompanied by an orchestra without a listed identity for a performance of the Williams’s A Sea Symphony last night at Sanders Theatre. One has to assume that the orchestra was hired for this performance and while the orchestra played well, it lacked the cohesion that one can expect from a group that has played together extensively. An occasional well-played oboe or horn solo appeared, and the brass fanfares, as at the opening, were sufficiently authoritative. I did have the feeling that Graham was not as comfortable conducting orchestras as she might be with choruses. There were times, for example in the third movement, when changes of meter or tempo were not quite assured.
The Chorale voices were generally unified and sang with good balance and blend. The sopranos have a cantabile sound when needed but can turn on the power without sacrificing quality. The altos are more typical of amateur choruses in that they frequently sing in the speech frequencies, in the middle C to its octave range, where it is more difficult to produce a resonant sound. This is also a matter of concept. Tenors and basses are distinguished by a well-supported tone and excellent balance between the two parts. When a work is based principally on text, one should expect to hear outstanding diction. However, there are hundreds (yes, hyperbole to make the point) of acoustical reasons why it is almost impossible to articulate words so they are understood. Yet, even with the poems printed in the program, they were not always easy to follow.
Outstanding among all the elements were the two soloists. Dana Schnitzer has a promising career ahead of her. Beyond a beautifully well-grounded quality throughout her range, she sings with conviction and appropriate emotion. Any stage graced by Robert Honeysucker warrants praise. His mellifluous baritone embraces many different and varied roles in opera and oratorio, and on disk. His contribution to the Vaughan Williams symphony was outstanding in its emotional fervor and brought to the performance a rare elegance.
Graham had a personal investment in the Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony; her maternal grandfather, Alexander Fox, to whom the concert is dedicated, was lost at sea during World War II, though the symphony was written a few years prior to World War I.
Graham exercised good control of the orchestra and chorus with only an occasional moment of uncertainty. Performance venues frequently shape a conductor’s approach to a work. In this case, the orchestra and chorus were spread horizontally in Sanders Theatre and required a wider conducting area than otherwise might have been used. With all energies focused on a single work, of somewhat lesser duration than a multi-work concert, the concentrated effort was welcome.