Before a scant audience last Friday in Cambridge’s First Church Congregational, Andrew Shenton led the Boston Choral Ensemble in an exciting program that featured works commissioned under the leadership of Dean Walter Hussey of England’s Chichester Cathedral. No one can argue with Hussey’s taste; it led much of the best known British and American composers of the 20th century to compose monumental works. While vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton, Hussey commissioned works such as Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice. Things didn’t change after Hussey arrived at Chichester Cathedral, where he commissioned Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Friday evening included not only this work but also explored other gems of choral literature commissioned by Hussey for the Cathedral, including works by William Walton, Geoffrey Burgon, William Albright, Lennox Berkeley, and Bryan Kelly.
Needless to say, compared to the comparatively reserved musical scope of the season’s first concert, Vertue (reviewed here), and the more whimsical programming that characterized the season’s second concert, Butterfly Dreams (reviewed here), Friday’s concert offered far more ambitious works that demanded much from the ensemble. Geoffrey Burgon’s Song of the Creatures incorporates chant-like passages that open into rich flourishes of choral texture. Led by assistant conductor Michael Dautermann, BCE presented an obedient, albeit staid, interpretation of the work that frequently suffered from issues with tuning. Bryan Kelly’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis revealed similar issues — although Kelly’s Magnificat exuded ebullient joy with complete commitment from the ensemble. The subdued Nunc Dimittis, however, requires a more thoughtful tack; as with Burgon’s work, Kelly’s piece was plagued with pitch inaccuracies that obfuscated some of its intricate polyphony.
BCE performed the original setting of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for organ (Bálint Karosi) harp (Ioana Comsa), percussion (Jonathan Hess), and choir. Although frequently plagued by difficulties in coordinating organ and harp, the smaller arrangement proved particularly effective, especially in the replacement of the timpani with an un-pitched drum that provided substantial drama to an amply affecting work. The smaller setting also fully benefited the surprisingly orchestral range of the First Church’s Frobenius tracker organ. Karosi certainly deserves notice here, particularly in the orchestral prelude of the third movement. Along with the BCE ensemble, he provided a rich, thoughtful read that maintained the full range and impact of an orchestral piece. Forrest Eimold’s boy soprano is imbued with a fragile crystalline quality that not only maintained accurate pitch but also imparted emotional sensitivity to the soprano aria in the second movement. Eimold was also featured in Lennox Berkeley’s The Lord is my Shepherd, in which the ensemble proved particularly flexible and sensitive to the dynamic of Berkeley’s florid line, while supporting and highlighting the precious solo line of the boy soprano.
Other works of the evening, particularly William Walton’s setting of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, or William Albright’s Chichester Mass, displayed BCE at its finest. Walton’s settings are treacherous, not only in their use of jazz harmonies but also in the vast array of textures. None of this proved too much for BCE, which negotiated both with an obedient eye to the score. Albright’s ambitious setting of the Ordinary of the Mass provides many challenges, juxtaposing dense choral textures and harmonies with swifter and more vivacious motifs; so BCE’s attention to the contrast paid off well in this performance that painted a vivid picture of Albright’s complex work.
In addition to the “Hall of Fame” of British and American composers, works from two other composers were included that were not commissioned for the cathedral but were world premieres. The first, a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Judith Weir, concluded the ensemble’s year-long meditation on her oeuvre. BCE’s focus certainly provided- an education on her work, with its luxuriant range of colors and textures and broad, stentorian lines; devotees of the ensemble will have walked away on Friday evening with a better understand of her considerable talent as a choral composer.
Mountain Lion, a new work by Stephen Feigenbaum, the winner of BCE’s fifth annual commission competition, is scored for organ, harp, percussion, and chorus. This difficult text, relating the death of a girl from a mountain lion attack, seems to embrace a contemporary colloquialism. Feigenbaum’s work mirrors this colloquialism, incorporating popular a cappella music (using vocal percussion and vocal effects) with some interesting sonorities.
Boston Choral Ensemble’s 2011-12 season has been the first led by conductor Andrew Shenton, and it brought a noticeable rise in the level of performance as well as definite change in repertoire centering on Shenton’s native English choral tradition. It has certainly been an exciting time musically for the ensemble. Next year will bring changes to leadership of the ensemble as well.