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Burleigh Leads CPM in Bach and Americans


Chorus Pro Musica’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” took place on March 10th in Old South Church, beginning with two selections by Bach and concluding with choral cantatas by Americans Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) and Eric Whitacre (1970-). The audience was very involved in the performance, and I heard comments between pieces ranging from “Let’s see how they handle the tricky fugues in the motet,” and “that sounded like Boston Baroque,” to “Look at the placement of the instrumentalists!” and “I liked all the newer pieces after the Bach.”

The first half felt like one extended Bach cantata, with the chorus arranged in two groups split by the organ, and later accompanied by a string quartet. Chorus pro Musica was at their most expressive in the movements from Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, sung by the full choir. The opening chorale was warm and well-blended, as conductor Betsy Burleigh enticed subtle expressive nuance from the large ensemble at the words, “Ach, wie lang.” She demanded a wide variety of dynamics from her singers and made choices informed by textual meaning (concerning the observation of fermatas in the chorales). Some of the trio movements (Denn das Gestz and So aber Christus in euch ist) were sung by a smaller group chosen from the full choir, but the singers were spread throughout the ensemble, resulting in some difficulties of pitch and blend. The motet is structured as a large arch form, and was presented with nice unanimity of accent and interpretation from the chorus in the second and penultimate movements (Es ist nun nichts and So nun der Geist). Edevaldo Mulla (cello) and Terry Halco (organ) provided invaluable continuo support, with notable chromatic playing from Mr. Mulla on the bass line of Trotz der alten Drachen.

The final chorale of Jesu, meine freude can be presented as an exact replica of the opening chorale, but Burleigh chose to wind the work down quietly. This made an effective transition to Bach’s shorter cantata Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196, possibly written around the time of Bach’s first marriage. The opening Sinfonia for strings seemed under-rehearsed, but soprano soloist Amanda Ketchpaw’s aria Er signet, die den Hern fürchten was one of the highlights of the program. A member of Chorus pro Musica, Ms. Ketchpaw bright, clear sound soared above the virtuosic string writing. She employed very little ornamentation (only in the last statement of the opening material), but showed excellent technique in both high and low vocal ranges of this difficult selection. David Won (tenor) and Steve McCormack (baritone) were well-matched in terms of diction but had very different vocal color, providing two contrasting interpretations of the text Der Herr segne euch. The chorus rallied for the work’s outer choruses, and the sopranos shone while featuring the chorale tune against a complex polyphonic texture in Der Herr danket an uns.

Instead of an intermission, the audience was treated to a tiny gem by Johannes Brahms, never published during his lifetime. Tenor Peter Pulsifer’s excellent program notes described the Kleine Hochzeits-kantate as an 1874 wedding present for Sigmund von Winiwater (a later colleague of Sigmund Freud at the University of Vienna) and his bride Emilia. The charming and humorous miniature sounds like Brahms’ contemporaneous Liebeslieder Waltzes and ends with the chorus exclaiming the names of the young couple.

Daniel Pinkham’s Wedding Cantata has been a staple of New England choral concerts since its 1956 commission for the wedding of Arthur and Lotje Loeb. The Loebs were co-masters of Dudley House at Harvard in the 1980s, and Arthur made significant contributions to crystalline-structure analysis in the field of Physical Chemistry. Like Pinkham’s better-known Christmas Cantata for mixed chorus and brass, the biblical texts are arranged in a contrasting series of “harmonically pungent, rhythmically varied” movements. The third movement, Awake O North Wind, showed Chorus pro Musica at its most operatic; Burleigh drew well-controlled crescendos and expressive contrasts that made it hard for the audience not to burst into applause before the mostly a cappella setting of Set me as a Seal.

The concert concluded with Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs for piano, violin, and mixed chorus, setting new poems by his wife Hila Plitmann. Julia Rocco’s brief but effective soprano solo in the difficult Eyze sheleg?/What snow? recalled Plitmann’s own voice (the five songs were adapted in 2001 by the composer from his 1996 song cycle for soprano and piano). I had the opportunity one week later to hear the composer conduct these works in Symphony Hall with his touring professional choir from England, and Chorus pro Musica’s performance compared quite favorably. The moving tenor-bass introduction to the first movement Temuna/A Picture was equally well-blended, but much more expressive than the British group. Betsy  showed a cool specificity in her conducting, demonstrating two radically different moods. She brought out the rhythmic incisiveness necessary for the refrain of the second movement Kala Kalla/Light Bride, while returning to a darker, covered quality for the chant-like verses. Kim Petot, a member of the chamber group featured in the Bach motet, played the tambourine for the mixed-meter portions of the movement, adding verve and drama to the presentation. I could have listened to them all day.

This beautiful, accessible cantata deserves more hearings in Boston, and will form the centerpiece of a concert next season by the Vermont Choral Union.

Note: This review was not published until two months after the event. The following paragraph was added on May 22nd, the publication date.

Whitacre’s choral music will also be featured this week, when the Drew University Chorale performs the Harvard-Epworth United Church on Wednesday, May 22, and next month, when the Boston Choral Ensemble sings his moving When David Heard and Tallis’ 40-voice Spem in alium on June 15 at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross

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