In All Saints Parish, Brookline on Saturday night, conductor/composer Nicholas White, the Boston Cecilia, the Lydian String Quartet, Barbara Bruns (organ), and Brenna Wells (soprano), offered challenging music with great interest and excitement. White presented a compelling foretaste of his vision for the Cecilia’s future, should he be offered the job. More on that, though, below the review.
This third and final concert of Cecilia’s season, entitled “From Earth to Heaven,” highlighting the British choral tradition, celebrated the centenary of Britten, and introduced White as programmer, conductor, and composer. The two-hour concert opened with William Byrd’s motet Laudibus in sanctis, a paraphrase of Psalm 150 and the initial work in that composer’s 1591 Cantiones sacrae. That glorious music was performed with a tight ensemble following White’s clear direction. For Henry Purcell’s 1688 “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Lydians took to the stage along with soprano soloist Brenna Wells. This work is an amalgam of chorus and solos (including two solo quartets from the Cecilia who sang out from within the body of the chorus), and is characterized as a verse anthem or a symphonia. The composition seems less a linear work than a musical meditation which unfurls over time; we heard a well-realized performance with clear and solid tempo modulations, well-chosen solo quartets, sensitive and nuanced collaboration from the Lydian String Quartet, as well as soaring sounds from Wells. Some of the text was less clear, although this may be more indicative of the language than of the chorus’s enunciation. Organist Barbara Bruns performed Frank Bridge’s Adagio in E; using a good selection of stops she presented the full range of Bridge’s work, from gentle to thundering, at times caressing and at times energetic, this work attained moments of great power which filled the sanctuary with sound. This work served as a bridge (yes, readers, pun intended) to the music of Benjamin Britten; the first half of the program ended with his “Sacred and Profane (Eight Middle English Lyrics,” op. 91. This challenging choral work was here realized with a great dynamic range, a good and clear Middle English pronunciation (or, clear to those of us who have spent some time with that language), and a level of comfort with the music which belies the difficulties of this score. The musical lines were clear, the vowels bright, and the consonants (including some of the more Germanic sounds of that language) well placed. Wells admirably displayed her piercing, clear treble in “Yif ic of luve can,” and the final lyric, “A death” was the best balanced of the set.
Following intermission, we returned for Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, op. 27, which sets words by W. H. Auden. I would be curious to know how many times The Boston Cecilia has performed this paean to its own titular deity. In this performance, the soloists were Wells, Deborah Greenman, Eileen Christiansen, John Kornet, and Charlie Evett. They and the entire chorus gave a moving performance of this haunting piece. The details and nuances mastered, they made music with this hymn. Though its character is quite different from other works on the program, it was well-placed as the start to the second half where it could shine, resonating with other works on the program but also benefitting from a bit of temporal distance from them. Britten was followed by his teacher, Frank Bridge: the Lydian String Quartet performed his Two Old English Songs for String Quartet (1913). While I do not know the words to “Sally In Our Alley” nor “Cherry Ripe,” the Lydians made these songs sing with spirit and grace, simplicity and excitement. It was a lovely following to the Britten hymn and returned us to the spirit of more idiomatic music as a prelude to the last major work on the program—Nicholas White’s own From Earth to Heaven (Six Middle English Lyrics) (original version 2006 for solo soprano and organ, here premiered in a reworked form for string quartet, soprano, organ, and chorus). The opening lyric, “Cuckoo Song (A Frolic),” is a jazzy setting of that most ubiquitous of Middle English poems. The second, “I Have A Yong Suster (A Rant)” combines early twentieth-century popular music idioms with traditional chorale writing, mapping the textual shift from narrative to allegory in the music as well. The third, “Say Me, Wight In The Broom (A Tirade),” combines intimations of early film music with rapid passagework in the organ, rhythmic punctuation in the string quartet, and placid vocal parts. The fourth, “I Sing Of A Maiden (A Love Song),” is calm yet lilting; the fifth, “Adam Lay Bound (An Ostinato),” is meditative; the concluding lyric, “The Corpus Christi Carol (A Lament),” is a touching setting of this famous hymn. White describes this work as featuring the soprano melodies throughout in gently-treated Middle English pronunciation while “the tone of each poem is reflected in the mood of the music.” I found the composition completely captivating and utterly charming—as, I think, did most in the audience. The range of musical influences were carefully marshaled into a coherent composition; secular and sacred lyrics combined into a pleasing totality. Finally, the music was fun—fun to hear, and fun, I think, for all the performers involved. I look forward to hearing more of White’s compositions. White voiced his thanks after the piece and announced that he could not end the program on such a low note as where his composition ended, so we heard the last offering of the night: Charles Villiers Stanford, The Bluebird, op. 119, No. 3 (1910). Wells sang the soprano solo line, the bird flitting above the chorus. The affect of this performance was of a caress. The applause was sustained.
The program was ambitious. Britten’s music presents a host of challenges, not all of which are the same as for the music of Byrd or Purcell. While all the music came from the British choral tradition, there are numbers of different, even strong, personalities among these composers. In the main, the Boston Cecilia rose to the challenges of this music, offering insightful readings of these works. As one who thrills to the soaring sounds of the trebles in British choral music, I (perhaps too keenly) heard the limitations especially in the soprano sections. I missed that power that comes from strong voices amassed in chorus, presenting a solid and sustained presence sailing mightily atop the harmonic intricacies of the lower voices. However, this did not keep me from enjoying the many moments of fine musicking we heard on this concert. The Boston Cecilia effectively captured the character of each piece on this program, and mastered many of the music’s technical challenges without ever being overwhelmed by them.
Nicholas White is a clear conductor who gives big, clear gestures. Of course, he is a tall and long-limbed man, so those gestures read well in performance venues, too; that trick of biology helps. The Boston Cecilia responded well to his direction and followed his indications promptly, from tempo to mouth-positioning to consonant placement. Clearly he is an experienced choral conductor; he also has the knack for working with people. The former can be taught, the latter not so much. The musicians and chorus all seemed content to work with White, and he with them. I found this program carefully structured and well considered (I overheard similar comments from others in the audience as well). I am also grateful to have heard his composition, “From Earth to Heaven,” and hope I have the opportunity to hear it again soon.
More on Cecilia’s Conductor Candidates
I have reviewed this season of the Cecilia and their three candidates for music director. Dan Perkins offered “Moving into the Future” in October (reviewed here) and Amy Lieberman conducted “The Miraculous Rose” in December (reviewed here). Now Nicholas White offered “From Earth to Heaven” (reviewed above). I thank the Boston Cecilia for sharing these public concerts doubling as job auditions with us; it is interesting to see this process unfold and to consider the possibilities each of these three candidates represent. There are three different visions for the future of the choir. Perkins offered a plethora of ideas for the group, but I could not discern a clear, guiding vision in his concert program. I consider Amy Lieberman and Nicholas White the stronger candidates for this position, and the choice between them, I think, will come down to a due consideration of what direction the Boston Cecilia wishes to take in the future. Lieberman proffered a vision that cleaves more closely to the strengths of the current chorus; she is clearly a skilled choral arranger, so could bring wonderful arrangements to the group’s repertoire. I can foresee a steady growth into a new identity for the group as she presents coherent and enticing programs to the singers and the public. White presented a more ambitious program of music which immediately challenges the group to expand and grow in new directions, while drawing on the Cecilia’s history of engagement with the British choral tradition, both traditional and contemporary. His program was also enticing to the audience, which responded with enthusiasm. He is a skilled composer and I could foresee the Boston Cecilia presenting more of his compositions in the future (an advantage in his favor, I would think). I am sure I am not alone in anticipating the announcement of the board’s decision and learning what vision for the future of the Boston Cecilia they choose.