The Boston Cecilia continued their year-long examination of music director candidates last night with conductor Amy Lieberman in Christmas music organized around “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen.” The programming played to Cecilia’s strengths and captivated the audience.
Last night’s concert in Church of the Advent, Boston, ran about two hours and spanned some five centuries of music, some a capella and some with chamber orchestra accompaniment. The program, chosen by Amy Lieberman, was well planned and showed an attention to detail, a knowledge of the group, and a happy pairing of performers and repertoire. More than that, it just made sense, it worked musically as a series of thematic choices.
The program opened with Praetorius, “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” (1609). This e’er-blooming rose (to use the old, familiar English translation) is linked to the cult of the Virgin Mary and we heard other forays into this profound Christmas mystery as the program progressed. The performance of this hymn was tight, coherent, and presented attentive singing with a solid ensemble texture — a good start to this concert. Next we heard “Ave Maris stella” from Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (1610 Vespers) with soprano Shari Alise Wilson bringing her expressive voice to the solo part and beautifully embodying the meaning of the text; Alex Powell weathered the tenor solo. There followed two of Francis Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour temps de Noël — “O magnum mysterium” & “Quem vidistis, pastores, dicite.” The first was beautifully mysterious at the beginning, although the first sopranos suffered from a lack of confidence at their opening entrance, but mercifully recovered. The second motet had some enunciation issues, seemingly always on “vidistis.” Overall, both were effective and moving readings of these works. Continuing thematically, the program returned to the early sixteenth century with Cristóbal de Morales’s “O magnum mysterium,” sung by a quartet: Alex Powell brought his distinctive voice to the tenor line, here rendering it almost plaintive; David Evans, tenor, sang with a rich variety of colors; Jason Sabol, baritone, demonstrated nuanced vocal blending; Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass, sang with a solid and round voice, grounding this delightful piece. A different quartet then sang the same composer’s “Nova resultent gaudia”: Shari Alise Wilson, soprano, returned and was a delight to hear; Clare McNamara, alto, an attentive and precise singer, sang forth in a pleasingly rich voice; Alex Powell also returned; and Mark Andrew Cleveland again grounded this song of joy. From joy to mystery: Tomás Luis de Victoria’s (1548–1611) “O magnum mysterium” was hauntingly beautiful. From Spanish polyphony we returned to Monteverdi: “Beatus vir” (from that composer’s 1641 publication). The refrain of “Beatus vir” was happy; the fugato on exaltabitur well executed; the diminishing dynamic on peribit painted the perishing most effectively.
Following intermission, the chorus returned with Hugo Distler (1908–1942): “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” from his Die Weihnachtsgeschichte. I found this a sensitive setting of the text with many beautiful moments of effortlessly floating music; Clare McNamara sang the alto solo, deploying greater resources of vibrato than previously. I would have preferred a more judicious choice here, yet her pleasant voice was still a treat to hear. Staying in the early twentieth century, we heard next Four English Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams (here in a very effective arrangement by Amy Lieberman) — “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (2nd tune) for full chorus, “The Truth Sent from Above” for Mr. Cleveland and instruments, “Wither’s Rocking Hymn for Ms. Wilson” and instrumentalists with full chorus joining in, and the Sussex Carol for full chorus, here given a delightfully chipper and rustic reading. Organist Barbara Bruns joined the full chorus for Gerald Finzi’s Magnificat; this wonderful work might well have showcased The Boston Cecilia at its finest. Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arranged by David Hoose for strings, was a moment of calm and meditation, here performed with a touching grace. The concert came full circle to end with “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen,” this time set by Jan Sandström (b. 1954). It was a more modern take on Praetorius’s tune, but a lovely choral work here realized with great feeling.
For Monteverdi’s “Ave Maris stella,” and the Vaughan Williams’s Four English Carols, The Boston Cecilia was joined by a quintet of strings, plus theorbo. Danielle Maddon, violin and concertmaster, displayed judicious choices of phrasing and made smart stylistic choices to fit the music. Violin duet moments shared with Dianne Pettipaw were exemplary. It was surprising to hear Vaughan Williams performed with theorbo, but as wielded by Catherine Liddell it was a treat; she brought sensitive musicality and poise to these lines as she had to Monteverdi, and at intermission she received rock star adulation from curious members of the audience — which she took in well-deserved stride.
This concert, the second of The Boston Cecilia’s season-long search for a new Music Director, showcased Amy Lieberman. I found her calmly confident conducting style to be a happy fit with this chorus, and she is clearly inspiring to the choristers. The chorus sounded very different last night than they did in October: more focused singing, more consistent vowels, greater precision with consonants (even the dreaded sibilants). One heard some timidity from the first sopranos at times, but the rest of the group seemed comfortable in their parts and confident in their singing. The program was beautifully organized with a well-chosen array of music in a variety of styles. I commend Ms. Lieberman for presenting this rosy Christmas miracle.
The concert repeats this Sunday, 3pm, at All Saints Parish, Brookline.