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Resonance Veils Spectrum


The culprit for Saturday evening’s Fiesta Latina from The Spectrum Singers  was First Church Congregational Cambridge, its excessively resonant space—not a new issue to Boston music-lovers. The drenching acoustic thwarted clarity of sound as much as it minimalized emotional impact. Perception of plentiful preparation further frustrated festivity. Peepholes along with fewer larger openings of sonic lure mandated another venue where clarity and emotion could thrive.

Abundant warmth from a large crowd would necessarily weigh in heavily in this report. A revitalizing air of friendliness and responsiveness spread across the sanctuary. Every last clap has to be calculated into an overview such as this.  If the sound space was downbeat, certainly the big turnout was upbeat.

In his 33rd year as founder and Music Director, John W. Ehrlich forges ahead with the chorus’s primary mission: “to perform works from all periods of music history—pre-Renaissance through the present day—at a high level of historically-informed professionalism.” For Fiesta Latina subtitled “Secular and Sacred, Vibrant and Varied, Vocal Words from Latin America,” there were 33 singers, eight cellos and two dancers. All to cast a Brazilian and Argentinian enchantment, this outing went outside the box.

One very large opening of sonic lure and Latin enchantment came with Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Boston soprano and versatile crossover artist Kristen Watson sang and hummed the ever popular and favorite Aria (Cantilena) of Heiter Villa-Lobos with heart-bound exquisiteness, earth-bound etherealness. More cross-culture, cross-genre allogamy figured in perfectly with Dansa (Martelo), her Latin show of volatility thrillingly climaxing the song: Lia! liá! liá! liá! La! liá! liá! liá! liá! liá! The adept cello octet suffered from the room, especially with their intended perky pizzicatos boom-booming.  Not missed, though, were the peepholes into the cello’s leisurely Latin melancholy.

One other opening was that of the second movement of The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ergo vir Videns paupertatem meam, a setting by Alberto Ginastera. The soft slow moving, sometimes sparser textures expressing “darkness like the dead of long ago” and “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord” synchronized with the church’s resonance. Ehrlich and The Spectrum Singers exposed us to the coming Holy Season’s shadows of sadness movingly, meaningfully. The Jewish wailing of Ginastera’s louder and faster opening movement, however, mostly surpassed the threshold of resonance, becoming muddy at the low end of the vocal range and shrill at the other.

Also on this Fiesta were other works of Villa-Lobos, his Mass in Honor of Saint Sebastian, a modest look-back to the Renaissance, which mostly made it through the vibrational fog; the three-part women’s choir really lit up the final cadence. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 was performed in fiery fashion by a wordless Spectrum mixed choir with cellos doubling. The B-flat minor fugue from Bach’s WTC I arranged by the Brazilian mostly perforated the wall of resonance, the cello octet this time tuning the alternating concords and discords at just the right tempo, yet with an interpretation leaning toward the feel of concordance, even with the usually tense dissonance.

Out on the street after concert’s end, I overheard a woman say, “The Piazzollas all sounded the same.” They did. The five Porteños and Tangos sung to “Bum be da da dum” and variants, falling shorter and shorter of enchantment, finally fell into tedium. Even stranger were the Piazzolla as demure vocalized accompaniments to the highly refined and sensual dance style of tango artists Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo.  Though both dancers moved impeccably in that Argentinian way where a man and a woman become one, the spirit of the space overshadowed, placing me in an anomaly. I would love to see this beautiful couple dance but in “tangoland,” their own milieu. But then, we are reminded, new boundaries are constantly being forged.

Another slant from Ehrlich in his brief and informative introduction: Villa-Lobos, who enveloped himself in the “musical atmosphere of Bach,” thought of the Baroque behemoth’s music as the universal folk music.  Hmm, there might be some catching up to do for some of us.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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