IN: Reviews

Choir Steps Out


Heretofore relegated to singing only at Sunday morning services, the Choir of First Church in Boston, composed of twelve professional singers, presented its first full concert on Sunday afternoon under conductor Paul Cienniwa, now in his seventh year as music director. This was a celebratory event, underwritten by the church’s Collins Family Memorial Concert Fund.

Cienniwa introduced each work on the program, often humorously citing the choir’s past associations. In keeping with the festive nature of the afternoon, the program included each singer’s biography: there are composers, numerous opera and lieder singers, solo concert artists, choral conductors, oratorio society soloists and a pianist.

Sung a cappella, except for the last work, the program opened with the tour de force Three Songs for Chorus by Philip Glass. First Church Choir beautifully handled Glass’s minimalist, repetitive figures, which were prominent though not overwhelming in these songs. This was perhaps the finest ensemble singing of the concert. Glass’s three songs were commissioned by the Québec Festival in 1984, and they are his only a cappella writing for choir. The texts are poems by three different North American poets: Leonard Cohen’s “There Are Some Men”, Raymond Lévesque’s “Quand les Hommes Vivront d’Amour”, and Octavio Paz’s“Pierre de Soleil”.

Schubert’s setting of the 92nd Psalm, “Lied für den Sabbath” D. 952 for baritone solo and chorus followed, with choir member William Thorpe as baritone soloist in the cantor’s role. Understandably, the choir was not as secure with the Hebrew text as they were with the two French songs by Glass, and more Schubertian expressiveness, lingering and longing would have been desirable.

Continuing with a 1963 arrangement by Parker/Shaw of the African-American spiritual Sometimes I Feel (like a Moanin’ Dove), mezzo-soprano Christina English soloed in the pensive, emotional lead with tonal warmth and richness. There is a stylistic connection between this piece and the Glass Three Songs in how sections of the choir often create sound environments by repeating chords and words in the background.

Acclaimed composer and teacher of composition, Larry Thomas Bell was present for the concert premiere of his Emersonia, Op. 113, composed for the First Church choir to poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The Rhodora”, “Two Rivers”, “Give all to Love” and “Concord Hymn”. With straightforwardness, often word-painting the text (including simultaneous melisma in all parts), the effective use of “lead and follow” between sections of the choir and a chordal style that sometimes bears similarities to Anglican chant, these pieces deserve to become standards in the choral repertoire.

Another well-known Boston composer, Karl Henning (who also sang in the concert), was represented with the concert premiere of his Love is the Spirit of this Church, Op. 85, No. 3. Henning used a contrapuntal, Renaissance motet style for this familiar text recited weekly in many Unitarian-Universalist churches. The style became strikingly but gently homophonic on the words “together in peace” and the conclusion was an extended, contrapuntal “Amen”.

Palestrina’s Isti sunt detoured us to the Italian Renaissance and conveyed a quiet timelessness that was a joy to hear.

Paul Cienniwa himself composed the next piece, Late October, to a text by Maya Angelou, and it too was a concert premiere, featuring chant-like chords, sometimes in speech rhythm, and often reveling in a rich texture which seemed to have expanded harmony to six or eight parts.

Leaves of Grass, Op. 100, by Paul Creston (1906-1985), with words from Walt Whitman, concluded the program. Composed in 1970, Leaves of Grass paired well with Bell’s new work, Emersonia. Indeed, Emerson had a high regard for Whitman, who was sixteen years his junior, and as transcendentalists, both had connections with Boston Unitarianism; furthermore, Emerson’s father was minister of First Church from 1799-1811. In the performance, Bob Winkley played the often-elaborate piano accompaniment in this five-section work. James Liu was the fine baritone soloist in the second movement, extolling the magnificent wonders of nature and creation; and Larry Thomas Bell was the reader in the third, a lament about war with chorus in the background. The fourth movement was a sweet ode to the Earth and the fifth, a jubilant song of personal strength and exultation.

Interior of First Church's Sanctuary (file photo)
Interior of First Church’s Sanctuary (file photo)

Your reviewer wishes to muse a bit about First Church and acoustic aspects of this concert. Paul Randolph, who also was architect for the Jewett Art Center of Wellesley College and the Government Service Center in Boston, designed the current structure, which replaces the 1867 Ware and Van Brundt church that burned in 1968, leaving only the tower and East facade. I first attended organ recitals at First Church when it was new, and it remains a compelling, challenging structure to me personally. Once inside, having decided with no little uncertainty which door to enter, one next questions how to find the sanctuary. There is humor, quest and reward here—perhaps mirroring life. Upon entering the sanctuary one sees a panoply of walls, balconies and ceilings at jaunty angles and elevations, giving much to contemplate.

In this a cappella concert, it would have been an additional treat had the choir sung from some of these different locations. From whatever position, the choir’s sound would seemingly have been clearer had they all faced the same direction, rather than standing in a half circle.

Another musing after Sunday’s concert is that this close-knit, spirited choir could refine its forte sound to be as beautiful as its piano sound, exercising care not to “over” sing, and giving special attention to the tone as the group crescendos. Since First Church uses recording and video media extensively, this choir has a marvelous opportunity to explore together their sound in this landmark building.

The audience expressed its sincere appreciation for this excellent “first” concert and your reviewer repeats the thank you to First Church members, their choir and Paul Cienniwa. May this concert become an annual event!

Joyce Painter Rice, an organist, recitalist, choral conductor and sometime concert organizer, has served in music capacities in a wide range of religious institutions. She is devoted to music for the organ and shares that concern through volunteering in the American Guild of Organists and at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, home of the Great Organ.


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  1. A fine review by one of the finest organists and choir directors I’ve had the pleasure to know — Joyce, I’m delighted to read your astute and sensitive comments to this rich concert experience. I hope you will contact me and renew our acquaintance.

    John Chmaj

    Comment by John Chmaj — February 3, 2013 at 2:30 am

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