The Ensemble St. Germain, directed by flutist Tim Macri, presented a little jewel of a concert on Sunday May 19, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, more commonly known as the Mission Church, in Roxbury. This program was the concluding one in the year-long series “Music at Mission.” “A Lot of Alain” was just that: not all works by Alain, but his music surrounded by other French composers which not only showed the milieu in which Alain worked but illuminated his musical style.
Jehan Alain was an early-20th-century French composer whose short life and composing career ended abruptly in combat during World War II. Yet he left a choice body of work which clearly expresses his interest in music by his older contemporary, Claude Debussy, the music of the far east, jazz, and the Renaissance. As a member of a musical family and a church musician himself from age 11, he clearly was deeply immersed in the ritual and music of Catholicism, and some of his most well-known works are for organ or on religious themes. What a perfect idea, then, to present the music of Alain in the setting of Mission Church, surely one of Boston’s most beautiful churches, and one in which Alain himself would most certainly have felt at home.
Tim Macri is part of the music staff at Mission Church, so he opened the program with the Introit to the Seventh Sunday in Easter, followed by a solo flute piece of Alain’s, Monodie, from 1938. Macri described Alain’s music in his opening comments as “very strange, to ethereally gorgeous.” This piece had a very improvisatory character with an Arabic flavor. Macri’s flute playing soared in the expansive space of the church. He has a particular gift for phrasing, and an unerring sense of time; no phrase is rushed but is rounded to what seems the only right conclusion.
The second work was Debussy’s Prelude a L’apres midi d’une faune, with Macri accompanied by pianist Scott Nicholas. To be accompanied by Nicholas must surely feel as though one had slid behind the wheel of a finely tuned, very luxurious sports car. His playing has power and control, but most of all, he makes the other player look good. Clearly an artist in his own right, his sensitivity to the person he is accompanying is so subtle as to be nearly invisible. He is able convey light and music and air and so many colors that you forget it is a piano you are listening to, and not a brook in a wooded forest with glints of sunlight dappling the surface of the water. A perfect accompaniment for Macri’s faun/flute, which was at times joyful, languid, passionate, and unhurried in his enjoyment of what must have been quite an afternoon.
Trois Mouvements” by Alain allowed Nicholas and Macri to show off a different kind of sound, at times thin and icy, at times warm, supple and sensuous. The third movement, Allegro Vivace, had a moto perpetuo character, trading melodies and jagged jazzy rhythms between flute & piano.
Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’A.L.A.I.N”, for organ, op. 7, by Duruflé, was written in 1942 as a tribute to his fallen friend and colleague; using the notes ADAAF as a theme, Duruflé wrote an impressive work. Glen Goda, music director and organist at Mission Church, gave this challenging piece a wonderful, powerful performance. It would be worth a visit to Mission Church just to hear the organ, George Hutchings op. 410, considered at its installation in 1897 to be one of the finest in the world. Its sound can range from a low, cat-like rumble, to full brass and organ tones. It filled the vastness of Mission Church with some pretty glorious sounds.
Alain’s Messe Modale, from 1938, was one of his last works. The full ensemble, Macri on flute, violinists Noemi Miloradovic and Charles Dimmick, violist Scot Woolweaver, cellist John Bumstead, and bassist Luke Sutherland, represents some of the cream of Boston’s freelancer crop. These musicians played with sensitivity, great balance, and beautifully matched tone and accompanied the equally lovely singing of soprano Kelly Hopkins and alto Mary Gerbi.
The music of Messe Modale is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem or Britten’s War Requiem, though condensed into a concentrated form. The work is quite short, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, lasting about 12 minutes. The Sanctus had the most modal harmonies, but it was the last line for the Agnus Dei which stood out: “Dona nobis pacem”; the chord underscoring “pacem” was darkly ominous, clearly showing that for a French musician who had lived through World War I and could see the looming clouds of World War II approaching, peace was not something to be taken lightly, or likely to be seen anytime soon.
The concert concluded with a serene and beautiful rendition of Fauré’s Pavane for the same grouping. Macri arranged the work with beautiful contrapuntal exchanges, and the round pizzicato sounds of cello, bass and viola were particularly lovely.
All in all, this concert was a loving tribute to a musician whose unusual work deserves a wider hearing.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.