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Music Sacra Enchants Once Again


Mary Beekman (Susan Wilson photo)

The third music review I ever wrote was an ecstatic piece on Musica Sacra two years ago, followed a few months later by another rave. This will be my third love-letter to this a capella group and its conductor, Mary Beekman. Musica Sacra delivers the kind of inspired programming and singing that is quite simply irresistible.

“The Crowning of the Renaissance,” the first program of its First Church of Cambridge season featured works of Thomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), whose death 400 years ago inspired a bumper crop of concerts last year in his memory. The other two, Claude Goudinel (c. 1514-1572) and Eustache du Caourroy (1549-1609) were represented memorably in settings of psalms and a mass. Musica Sacra, whose repertoire covers five centuries, has a knack for choosing often unknown composers and presenting their works in such a beguiling manner that one often discovers a new favorite. Such was the case for me with Claude Goudimel.

The evening opened with his 2 (sic) Settings of Psaume (sic) 130: Du fonds de ma pensée, performed by 15 of the choristers. In her always-enlightening program notes, Mary Beekman explains she followed Eustache du Caurroy’s example in programming, including setting of the psalms used in the Vespers service for the dead; Psalm 130 and 120. Psalm 130’s four stanzas are sung first as solos, then in a version set homophonically in which all voices move as one, then finally with the melody in the soprano as other voices imitate these phrases. The high point was the soaring alto solo, sung by new member Emily Nydem,  but this dry account gives little indication of how beautiful it was, alas

For Psalm 120, Alors Qu’Affliction Me Presse the whole choir sang. The choir used the 1564 version of the first stanza, while choosing the 1580 version for the second stanza. (A liar is reproached: “What advantage Do you gain from this false speech? How will you profit from This deceitful tongue? Your words are sharp arrows Drawn by a powerful hand And your talk poison, A burning coal of juniper.” Loved the psalm, loved the singing.

Mary Beekman writes, “What about de Caurroy’s haunting Missa pro defunctis causes it to have such a profound upon the listener?” Easy. It’s ravishing, yet in a solemn and stately manner. Peacefulness and calm pervade the Introit, sung twice, as was the Kyrie. In “Si ambulem,” I felt profoundly calmed by the music to “If I walk through the shadow of death I will fear no ill; you  are with me, O Lord Your rod and staff comfort me.” The persistent solemnity and relaxed pace of Caurroy’s mass in this lovely performance gave a profoundly restful break from a hectic world, profoundly restful. The quartet of soloists comprised soprano Janet Ross, alto Emily Nydem, tenor Erik Bertrand, baritone David Halstead, and bass Terry Halco. Ms. Nydem, a new member, was sensational.

Tomás de Victoria, far better known than du Caurroy, was born in Avila (the birthplace of St. Teresa of Avila) just a year after du Caurroy. His lovely motet O magnum mysterium was published in 1572, and the mass he based it upon in 1592. The text “O magnum mysterium” was a favorite of Renaissance composers, perhaps, Ms. Beekman suggests, “because it so successfully comments upon the cognitive dissonance of the King of the Universe appearing on earth in a barn amongst animals.” His beautiful Missa O Magnum Mysterium, more typical than de Caurroy’s Missa of the culmination of Renaissance polyphony, made a great pairing . Its Sanctus gave the sopranos a chance to shine; they were terrific the entire concert. The soloists were soprano Lisa Cacciabaudo, alto Sara Matthews, Tenor Benjamin Skerritt-Davis, and Bass Karl Naden.

The two masses by Victoria and du Caurroy made a clever pairing. Mary Beekman not only has a knack for writing great program notes and (obviously) for choral conducting, but also for assembling irresistible programs.

 Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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