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Coro Allegro on War and Loss


In seems odd to talk about the “Lamentations of Jeremiah” a scant two weeks after Easter, yet it’s this very text that began Coro Allegro’s concert on Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre. The eloquent paean comes from the prophet Jeremiah in Hebrew Bible, after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th-century BCE. The text of the אֵיכָה (Eikhah) is part of Jewish worship to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. In the Christian context, the Lamentations have been canonized because of the role they play in the Tenebrae service of Triduum—the service foreshadowing the immolation of Christ on Good Friday, followed by the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Settings of the Lamentations text and its associated lessons have their roots most notably in Renaissance music, most notably by Victoria, Gesualdo and Thomas Tallis.

More recently, however, the Lamentations and its associated texts have taken on a meaning outside of their liturgical roles, playing a deeper role in reflecting political climate. Poulenc famously sets four of these texts (Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence) while living in a Europe on the verge of erupting into World War II. At about the same time, after being blacklisted in Perón’s Argentina and stripped of all teaching positions, Alberto Ginastera wrote his own set in New York in the summer of 1946. It’s this discomfiting setting—replete with wailing and war cries—that opened Allegro’s concert. For “…In Time of War” on Sunday afternoon in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, the ensemble undertook challenging depictions of war and its impact both in the modern age and historically. In opening remarks, Coro Allegro president Tanya Cosway explained that the concert sought to honor “…those who are being or have been affected by war, whether as  combatants, civilians, or families and friends waiting for a loved one to return home.”

Coro eased into the treacherous work showing complete commitment to conductor David Hodgkin’s vision, taking us on a thrilling ride into the dark depths of Ginastera’s interpretation of mournful perspective of the war-torn world around him. Despite the sometimes complex drama of the work, pristine vocal lines particularly in the second and third movements brought ought the complex text-painting and counterpoint that illuminated Ginastera’s vibrant setting of Jeremiah’s text.

Not all the works on Sunday’s concert required as much intellectual engagement, however. Lee Hoiby’s Last Letter Home incorporated orchestra with the choir, providing a deeply satisfying backdrop to a simple setting of the shockingly intimate text: the letter written from Private 1st Class Jesse Givens to his wife, stepson and unborn son with instructions that it be opened upon his death. (May 1, 2003).

Two a cappella works closed the first half of Sunday’s program. Peter Eldridge’s Come Home (1991) manages to extract tomes of meaning from the seven-line poem it sets to music. The work takes full advantage of Eldridge’s jazz background requiring a smoother straight-tone and seamless transitions between different musical textures. Allegro followed suit, deftly accommodating the unusual technical and dynamic demands of the work. The first half concluded with an appropriately subdued, yet attentive, performance of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia.

Given the emotional weight of Ginastera, Hoiby, Eldridge and Thompson, I was surprised to see that Haydn would conclude this concert. His Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War) was written in 1797 when Austria was engaged in war against a quickly advancing Napoleon. Coro Allegro, joined by orchestra and soloists Teresa Wakim (soprano), Pamela Dellal (mezzo-soprano), Stefan Reed (tenor) and Thomas Jones (Bass) presented a balanced view of the gravity and levity of the Mass that didn’t torture comedy into deep statements about war and battle (or vice-versa, for that matter).

This doesn’t sound like high praise, but it really is. To be sure: the Mass is not without its moments of lightness. A sunny C Major Kyrie feels more like a pastoral stroll into an opera, rather than a march to battle. This sense of opera chorus/aria continues throughout the opening movements of the work. Coro really engaged with the work, remaining attentive to sudden changes in mood without overweighting emotions. The opening movements rely heavily on the abilities of the solo quartet, which on Sunday maintained a handsome combination of color and blend, while highlighting individuals in solo passages. Of particular note was Thomas Jones’s in the Gloria (in duet with cello soloist Aristides Rivas) projected rich, broad lines with astounding lightness and ease.

But Haydn knew that Eden sank to grief, so by the time we come to the Agnus Dei, we are in a very different world indeed, having left the fields of the Kyrie for more somber pastures—a dystopia that is replete with rumbling timpani and horns proclaiming war. That tonal picture cast long, disfigured shadows far into Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The smooth, detailed transition from Kyrie to Agnus Dei brought Sunday afternoon’s emotionally challenging performance to a triumphant end. The ensemble’s fine traversal of experience and expression was richly rewarded by an enthusiastic crowd at Sanders Theatre.

Sudeep Agarwala performs with various singing groups in Boston and Cambridge.

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