in: Reviews

June 2, 2013

Burleigh Era Ends for Chorus pro Musica

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Friday night Chorus pro Musica brought its 2012-13 season, and director Betsy Burleigh’s era to a close in a memorable concert featuring music by Mozart and Peter Child. They were joined on the stage of Jordan Hall by New England Philharmonic and soloists Kristen Watson (soprano), Krista River (mezzo-soprano), David Won (tenor), and Andrew Garland (bass).

Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor,” K. 427 is an incomplete setting of the rite. Composed in 1782, the work served to showcase the voice of his new bride, Constanze Weber, on their first trip back to his native Salzburg. As such the work has substantial soprano solos, and lesser parts for the other vocal soloists. There is no Agnus Dei to conclude this musical setting (in the original performance Mozart probably substituted the section from one of his other Masses); here is where Peter Child’s Meditations Upon the Lamb (a world premiere commissioned by Chorus Pro Musica) comes into focus. This tripartite work sets William Blake’s “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence, Ted Hughes’ “Orf” (now found in his 2006 collection, Moortown Diary), and the Latin Agnus Dei text. The three parts are performed continuously; while there is a clear division between the first and second parts, there is overlap between the end of Hughes’ poem and the Latin text of the Agnus Dei. Mozart and Child served as foils to one another musically, just as Child played these disparate texts off one another in his own composition. The concert began with a few words from Burleigh and Child, followed by Child’s composition, then Mozart, and finally a reprise of Child’s Meditations, all performed without intermission. I appreciated the opportunity to hear Child’s work a second time, to solidify my sense of the piece.

Meditations Upon the Lamb opens with a fillip in the low strings before the vocalists start in on Blake’s poem. The words are trochaic in rhythm but this Song of Innocence as a whole has a dactylic sway to it when read through, and Child’s opening captures this feeling effectively. There is complexity in the composition, as befits the depths of Blake’s words, both in the vocal and instrumental parts. Where Blake’s poem has a different character in each of its two stanzas, Child’s composition gains in intensity and texture. This makes the segue into the second section all the more noticeable:  Hughes’ “Orf” is set sparsely, and sung primarily by baritone solo. Garland brought a dramatic and declamatory style to this part which fits the words and setting.  I found this section well performed (slightly less tight ensemble playing the second time through at the end of the concert), even as I personally find Hughes’ poem and Child’s setting of it to be disturbing and not to my taste. The poem recounts violence in vivid detail, and that is its point; Child captures this aspect well, and Garland brought a forthright gruffness to the singing which matched the mood. The words and music are powerful, but I cannot help finding the narrative distasteful. The sacrifice of the lamb in the second part leads into the Agnus Dei as the chorus begins singing the Latin text in response to the baritone finishing Hughes’ words. This Agnus Dei with its plangent cry for peace (Dona nobis pacem) shows “world music” influences, noticeably in the use of piano and harp playing a pentatonic theme. This composition is a study in contrasts in and of itself, showing a deft hand at writing for instruments and voices, combining disparate elements into one composition. It is an accomplished work in an approachable, familiar musical idiom. On the whole I found it more of a strong contrast than a continuation of musical ideas elaborated in the Mozart, although I do think Child’s opening musical gesture is a nod to the propulsive rhythmic cell that starts Mozart’s Credo in this “Great” Mass

Mozart’s Mass acknowledges its debts to Bach and Handel from the very beginning in its length of lines, voice leading, and use of counterpoint. Chorus pro Musica and New England Philharmonic brought solid and tight playing to this work from the start. The chorus’s Kyrie had power and force, beginning this piece on a plaintive note. Watson’s solo turn with Christe eleison was edgy.  In the Gloria, I was overwhelmed by the tenderness River brought to her line. During the central Mystery of the Credo, the section beginning Et incarnatus est here set for soprano solo, Watson brought a redemptive interiority to this music that illuminated words and notes to great effect. Throughout the chorus gave life to the music. When singing miserere nobis, I noted a lack of pathos; this is one place where the subito change in dynamic or character was less polished and immediate than it ideally would have been. The Osanna concluding the Sanctus was strong, resounding, if not wholly joyful and bright. With the Benedictus, the quartet of vocal soloists fronted orchestra and chorus in a play between individual and ensemble lines; from where I sat Won’s smooth tenor line was less present than the other three, marring the interplay. After a brief moment of applause, we returned to Child, Meditations Upon the Lamb, again in contrast to the Mozart and to itself.

It is clear how beloved Betsy Burleigh is by Chorus pro Musica and New England Philharmonic. This celebratory send-off demonstrated how well they have worked together and the results were obvious in the musical performance. Will Burleigh return as guest conductor from time to time?  Doubtless the choristers would love that. Meanwhile, Music Director Designate Jamie Kirsch inherits a strong ensemble. I look forward to their musicking next season.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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