Saturday night at First Church Congregational in Cambridge, the Spectrum Singers gave their Christmas concert, “Buon Natale! An Italian Christmas Prelude”. This year the chorus is focusing on music from a particular country or region for each concert, and Italian repertoire was the choice for Christmas. Music Director John Ehrlich ably led the chorus in Renaissance motets by Palestrina, Marenzio and Giovanni Gabrieli, a variety of 20th-century carol arrangements, and Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività (Hymn of Praise for the Birth of the Lord).
Coming even before Thanksgiving, this was perhaps Boston’s first holiday choral concert this year, and your reviewer found it refreshing. With their varied, colorful choices, the Spectrum Singers sent us well on our way to enjoy the vast repertoire of Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah and “seasonal” music to be sung in Boston during the next six weeks.
Though Respighi’s Lauda was last on the program, the fineness of the work itself and the performance it received make it appropriate to be described first. Lauda premiered in Siena on November 22, 1930, St. Cecilia’s Day, when the composer was age 51. The work is a 25-minute continuous cantata with a medieval-based text, luscious choral and solo writing and an equally beautiful ensemble accompaniment of woodwinds, piano and triangle.
The instrumentalists for the Spectrum concert were Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Amanda Wellum, flute/piccolo; Amanda Hardy, oboe; Jane Harrison, English horn; Wren Saunders and Adrian Jojatu, bassoon; James Barkovic and Terry Halco, piano four-hands; and John Grimes, triangle. All played exquisitely and their parts exceeded accompaniment: delightful, symphonic episodes set the stage as the scenes changed and the individual instruments often repeated and answered sung lines.
This performance of Lauda was so engaging that one could imagine being “within” the elaborate Nativity paintings of the Italian masters. In the first “painting” the Angel, sung by soprano Laura Serafino Harbert, announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, in mode-rich, pastoral melodies. Her coloratura voice floated gracefully through some dramatic harmonic changes. The chorus then became all the angels singing to the shepherds that Jesus was born but, unexpectedly for a Savior, he was in a poor stable.
In the next imagined painting, a leader of the shepherds, tenor Rockland Osgood, stepped forward and looked heavenward towards the angels in the vast sky. With gorgeous tone, shepherd Osgood petitioned the Lord for the shepherds to be guided to the Child. His humble prayer was accompanied solely by the chorus’s humming accompaniment (“sempre a bocca chiusa” — always with a closed mouth). Perhaps Respighi had waited for years to write a humming chorus, inspired by Puccini’s in his 1904 opera Madama Butterfly.
Following another instrumental interlude, we arrived with the shepherds in the lowly stable and gathered around Mary and the baby, central in the next painting. The chorus of shepherds (a cappella tenor and bass sections) expressed their awe for the newborn Lord and realized his poverty. Mary, mezzo-soprano Elaine Bresnick, sang lovingly with great emotional depth and warmth of tone to the newborn Jesus: “O poor little son of mine, the promise of your blessed father”. The shepherds expressed worry that Joseph, an old man, could not take care of Mary and the baby and offered their cloaks for the child before they departed. Again as angels the chorus sang “Gloria in excelsis Deo” in exuberant, shimmering, tutti music. As the music changed back to peacefulness, Mary intoned a prayer of thankfulness on a single note, and the piece ended with gentle, sweet Amens.
Conductor, chorus, soloists and instrumentalists worked together marvelously in this performance. Lauda is a compositional gem and like the shepherds, the audience returned to their lives enthralled.
Several online sources give analytical and historical descriptions of this work. One is a BMInt review by Vance R. Koven of Chorus pro Musica’s performance of Lauda, on December 19, 2011 [here]. Also, a Wesleyan University honors thesis by Brittany Fowler, 2009, discusses Neoclassical Idioms in Lauda: here.
Prior to the Respighi, Spectrum Music began the second half of the concert with arrangements of four traditional Italian carols. The first of these, “Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary”, arr. Charles Wood, featured dynamic changes and some nice tie-over phrasing according to the text.
“Once, as I remember”, also arr. by Wood, was eagerly awaited by this reviewer and was a program highlight due to the tune’s simple beauty and again the phrasing and dynamics. The chorus was masterful in singing the intricate, quiet “Lalullaylu” refrain ending each stanza.
In “How unto Bethlehem”, a Renaissance dance-like carol arr. by Robert Shaw, the men’s excellent voices were heard as they sang stanzas alternating with full chorus. In the final carol, the lullaby “Dormi, dormi, o bel bambin”, we heard the first solo of the evening. Alto section member Hannah Ford’s rich, compelling voice was perfect in this carol, demonstrating that the Spectrum women have exceedingly fine voices too. Ford received appreciative applause.
The evening had begun at 7 pm, as Steven Ledbetter, esteemed musicologist, lecturer and writer, delivered a pre-concert talk on the music of Palestrina, Marenzio and Giovanni Gabrieli. The first half of the concert would comprise motets by these composers. It was clear that Ledbetter has immense knowledge on music of this genre; eventually he shared that his PhD thesis had been on Marenzio. Several times in describing the music and talent of Palestrina, Ledbetter used the word “astonishing”. Everyone took note and this listener and surely others began to have expectations about the performance we soon would hear. The pre-concert talk was held in a parlor-assembly room a short distance down the hall from the church. As latecomers arrived most of the parlor seats were taken.
Surely the people who would have enjoyed Ledbetter’s informative lecture most were the Spectrum Singers themselves. (Or had he previously spoken to them?) One wonders if the lecture could be held in the church and pre-concert rehearsal schedule adjusted so that singers could attend.
The Renaissance motets sung were: “Canite Tube” by Palestrina, “Hodie Christus natus est” by Marenzio, “Dies Sanctificatus” by Palestrina, “O Magnum Mysterium” by G. Gabrieli, and “Hodie Christus natus est” by Palestrina. Though varied in composition style and well sung, this reviewer felt that the style of singing Ehrlich chose for the choir in these pieces did not follow through with the information given in the lecture. There was not enough “enjoyment” of dissonance moving to consonance; also the linear, almost mathematical characteristic of the Palestrina sound was obscured by a likely unintended emphasis on beats.
Let me applaud the entire Spectrum Singers organization for their concert readiness and welcome to the public. Volunteers at the ticket sales desk, the ushers and other helpful people make it a joy to attend their concerts. The chorus is in their 32nd year of concerts! Many of their singers stay a long time because of the interesting repertoire and dedication of their founding director, John Ehrlich.
All of Boston’s choral groups contribute to the well being of the city and her inhabitants. In this Thanksgiving week, let us music lovers thank them all. Congratulations and thank you, Spectrum Singers, for this fine concert beginning Boston’s Christmas music.