IN: Reviews

Unfamiliar Raptures from Musica Sacra


There are always “finds” at Musica Sacra’s concerts, and Saturday’s at First Church Congregational in Cambridge, was no exception. Actually, the entire concert of choral music from Northern Europe featured pieces I’d never heard—or even heard of before. Three of the composers are well-known: Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and Igor Stravinsky, but they were represented by unfamiliar but charming pieces.

Mary Beekman, Musica Sacra’s intrepid Artistic Director since 1979, assembled an extraordinary program in which the pieces in a large variety of unusual languages (sung and deftly pronounced) echoed off of each other, creating a cumulative effect of deep calm.  The strong tradition of sung folk music in the Northern areas of Scandinavia, Lithuania, and Estonia has interestingly been the source for much important choral music in the late 20th– and early 21st-centuries. This most unusual concert was musically and spiritually moving from beginning to end. You can rely on Musica Sacra for beautifully blended singing of extraordinary repertoire.

The concert opened with the dreamy Sommarnatten by Finnish Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) sung and composed (oddly) to a poem in Swedish about a dance on a bridge, summer singing in our blood. The middle section was full of joy and energy, voices imitating each other polyphonically. Its first and third sections were trancelike and otherworldly.  Henryk Kikolay Górecki (1933-2010) was represented here by Szeroka Woda (Broad Waters), op. 39, a ravishing five movement suite of traditional Polish folk songs, composed in 1979. Musica Sacra sang it magnificently, as they did all of the pieces on this most unusual program. This is a chorus that delivers the goods each and every time.

Four Russian Peasant Songs by Igor Stravinsky (sung and printed in the program in Russian) followed. Mary Beekman explained in her excellent notes that as Stravinsky was raised in St. Petersburg, located at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, thus he geographically fit into the world of Balkan composers. Like Bartók and Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky was deeply interested in folk music, traveling to the Ukraine to collect folk verse. These peasant songs were uncommissioned and full of charm and intricately complex rhythms. In this centenary of The Rite of Spring, it is an unexpected pleasure to meet a charming “new” Stravinsky work. The spirited soloists were Bjorn Poonen, tenor, Peter Bloser, baritone, Karl Naden, bass and Brian Middleton, tenor.

After the simply gorgeous “Ubi Caritas” (sung in Latin) by Norwegian born Ola Gjeilo (1978), the spotlight shone on Lithuanian composer Vaclovas Augustinas (b. 1959) just before and after intermission. His “Tykus Tykus” tells of a quiet lad and rider who is about to seduce a young maiden into a granary (!), but suddenly he awakes and takes off on his horse riding to battle. The choristers made lots of horselike clucking sounds, leaving Mary Beekman with her own clucking solo. One could imagine the Kings Singers doing this song it was a lot of fun. Augustinas’s “Anoj Pusej Dunojelio” was one of the concert’s highlights. The chorus was spread out, circling the spacious First Church, Cambridge, so a surround sound of alternating echos, dramatic crecendi and bell-like voices entranced throughout. The formation was at the composer’s request. Augustrina learned the Lithuanian folk tune “Anoj pusej dunojelio” from his father as a child and created this luscious setting in 2006.

Musica Sacra has performed several of Arvo Pärt’s (b. 1935) works since they gave the New England premiere of his Passio in 1993. Accompanied by a very quiet organ (Terry Halco) with big solo at the end, “The Beatitudes” is a stark setting of the poem of social justice known as the Sermon on the Mount. Ms. Beekman writes, “Pärt composed this work in 1999, and it follows the form of every other work we have done. The voices move together as one, according to strict rules: two of them move only stepwise, while the other two move only among the notes in a single triad. Each syllable gets one note and the length of the note is determined by the location of the syllable in the text. Final words of phrases get the longest notes, and phrases are separated by rests. The interplay of these formulae creates that mesmerizing result that Pärt’s devotées treasure and that he describes as tintinnabuli. He writes: ‘I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials- with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.’ If you are a Pärt fan, this was well worth hearing.

Last season I heard Musica Sacra do a few sections of the enchanting Ingerimaa Ohrud (Ingrian Evenings) by Eastonian composer Veljo Tormis (b. 1930), and awaited hearing the rest with avid anticipation. Before Estonia became free in 1991, Tormis was considered a leading composer in the former Soviet Union, but a nonconformist who got into trouble for texts he set to music. In nine movements, Ingrian Evenings Tormis begins with a lively Dance Song that sounds a lot like music for jumping rope, a dotted rhythm liilee ja lailee, allelee ja lailee… “With my songs and laughter,” the chorus sings, “I overcome the sorrowful days…” This is the first of four dance songs, notable for its use of vocalized inhalation, a technique borrowed from the Ingrian singing tradition. The entire piece of nine songs is suffused with charm and really lovely music, speaking of young love and its frustrations, with gossiping village wives sneaking around, being daring. Until the end, when Tormis shocks with his disappearing populace. Tormis describes “Ingrian Evenings:“It is a farewell song to the whole of Ingermanland… the former population of which has been scattered or assimilated as a result of the two World Wars and the result of a criminal policy of genocide carried out by the Soviet Union.” In Part 9, the singers scatter in small groups, walking off the stage through the aisles. They heartbreakingly represent this dispersal, singing the earlier music as they bid farewell and disappear. It is quite devastating, and deeply moving. Musica Sacra and its soloists for this piece, Kiera Wilhelm and Katie Von Kohorn, were superb. I may forget the names of all of these pieces, or even composers, but I will surely remember the rapturous beauty of this evening’s music.

 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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