in: Reviews

October 29, 2012

Music, Poetry, & Dance with The Boston Cecilia


The Boston Cecilia, now in its 137th year, embarks on a season of “transition and renewal” as they search for a new conductor. On Saturday night the program entitled, “Moving into the Future” provided the 44-voice chorus and the audience an opportunity to consider Dan Perkins, one of the three candidates for the post, as he presided over a collaborative program of old and new works.

The concert in All Saints Parish, Brookline, opened with Morten Lauridsen, Mid-Winter Songs (1980), a setting of five poems by Robert Graves. The music is composed in a very approachable idiom and has some moments of great beauty. This performance also contained some rough patches and it felt like the choir and conductor were distracted or were still acclimating either to one another or to the work. I did not find the texts in the program until afterwards, and found the words difficult to hear as the Cecilia sang. It is unfortunate that the concert led with this, the weakest performance.

The second work programmed was John Corigliano’s Fern Hill (1961), a setting of the eponymous Dylan Thomas poem. For this work, and throughout the rest of the concert, a string quintet joined Barbara Bruns, piano; this piece also brought to the fore Jennifer Fijal, mezzo-soprano, whose lovely voice with rich timbre and a range of musical coloring perfectly suited the composition.

During the Lauridsen and Corigliano we also had performances by Tributary Dance, at first in the aisles (so not visible to all in the audience), then in front of the string quintet during the Corigliano. The movement combined some elements of ballet in a decidedly modern style of dance; for Lauridsen the dancers wore long panels of flowing fabric descending from their waists, and billowed and furled the fabric. Although I am not a dance critic, I know something about the medium and have danced in my past. That said, I must confess that the connection between dance and music was lost on me in this performance. Sometimes, less is more.

Following intermission, the chorus and string quintet returned, with five soloists for Ralph Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (1938), a setting of an ode adapted from the verses of The Merchant of Venice. Though he originally composed the work for 16 soloists (well known to the composer) and full orchestra, Vaughan Williams later arranged it for chorus and orchestra as well as for violin and orchestra. The quintet, chorus and soloists version is credited to Denis Williams. The assembled musicians gave a fine reading of this work. Susan Consoli, soprano, showcased her round tone and bell-like clarity, both well-suited to the space. Jennifer Fijal, mezzo-soprano, returned with her wealth of colors and timbres, while Eileen Christiansen, mezzo-soprano with the Cecilia, elevated her dark, richly resonant voice from the choir risers. Ryan Turner, tenor, brought precise intonation to his lines, while Daniel Brevik, baritone, projected a booming and vibrant voice in his. This work, hardly a serenade in the usual sense, was a thrilling treat. Shakespeare’s lines are here.

We turned next to new poetry, with The Boston Cecilia High-School Poetry-Contest Winner, Jack Colton, reading his “From Elsewhere.” (The text was printed in the program, along with the second and third place winners.) A prose-poem written like a letter to parents, it is a sensitive portrayal of a family of readers; one wonders if it will be set to music?

Conductor candidate Dan Perkins (file photo)

Choir and string quintet offered a polished reading of Jonathan Santore’s The Return (Armistice Poems) (2005). Setting texts by John Freeman, Agnes Lee, and Robert Louis Stevenson, the composer sought to re-create World War I-era parlor music, even as the settings resonate anew today. The work was lovely, and lovingly performed by all assembled.

The program concluded with Kirk Mechem’s “Dan-u-el” (1987), from his cantata, Songs of the Slave, and showcasing once again Daniel Brevik, baritone. This gospel-inflected work was a rousing and exciting number to end the concert and the program.

Based on this concert, Dan Perkins seems an able conductor, pleasant in demeanor and able to address an audience as well as lead an ensemble. He showcased breadth and versatility in this concert, incorporating dance and poetry; in many respects, he came across as more of an impresario than a choral conductor. Since he is one of the finalists for the position, The Boston Cecilia must be entertaining this vision for the organization’s future. It would be a different Cecilia from what we have experienced heretofore and that is bound to ruffle feathers and disgruntle some of the audience. For this program Mr. Perkins drew on his connections in New Hampshire:  the composer Jonathan Santore is a colleague at Plymouth State University and composer in residence with the New Hampshire Master Chorale – a group founded and directed by Perkins; Daniel Brevik is a former student of Dan Perkins. Bringing Santore and Brevik to new and very appreciative audiences was an unqualified success. I am curious to see what other visions of The Boston Cecilia’s future the remaining finalists for the position of conductor present.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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