IN: Reviews

Singers Soar at Christ Church


The late Rebecca Clarke must have been a woman of some considerable soul. Her legacy of choral works, just rescued from oblivion, reveal a tremendous feeling for the alchemy of great music and poetry combined.

The Cappella Clausura singers brought this neglected composer to life last night in a program titled “Rebecca Clarke and Her Circle”. The open acoustical environment of Christ Church Cambridge added to the effect.

The six women and six men, directed by the group’s founder Amelia LeClair, brought off this early 20th-century music with beautiful balance and precision. The soaring individual voices blended into a harmonic form that took the music a new level.

LeClair’s intimate conducting style (she stands just inside a semi-circle of the singers) in effect made her the 13th singer as she molded the modern sounds of Rebecca Clarke into a stunning succession of short pieces. Of the 14 selections on the program, 11 were Clarke’s work, taking poems from Shelley, Auden, Shakespeare and Tennyson, among others, for the words. Other pieces from Benjamin Britten, Palestrina and Ralph Vaughn Williams rounded out the evening. Clarke’s “incredible ear for language is evident in every piece”, LeClair said in the program notes.

The music ranged from God to love to humor. Auden’s “Hymn to St. Cecelia” appropriately invites Cecilia to “come down and startle composing mortals with immortal fire”.

A burst of laughter erupted at “Now Fie on Love”, a poem by 17th-century Edward Phillips, that ends, “To love is but to go to school to weep;/ I’ll leave it for my betters./ If single love be such a curse,/ to marry is to make it ten times worse.”

The singers performed some works for women only, reaching what seemed near-celestial heights in the high-ceilinged church resonances. Alternately, the six men also performed a few works separately, providing a welcome change of pace through the evening.

The singers that LeClair has assembled boast impressive pedigrees. Soprano Aliana de la Guardia is a frequent New Music performer, with Kurtig, Sciarrino and Schoenberg in her repertoire. An outstanding tenor, Alexander Nishbun, has performed widely in opera, including productions of Donizetti, Puccini and Mozart. Others are active in opera and and recitals in the Boston area and beyond.

Program notes described the event as “important, even historic” as the first performance in the Boston area, and perhaps nationally, of Clarke’s skillfully crafted complete choral works.  In this music “there isn’t a moment of filler,” Le Clair writes. “Every note counts. These are pieces that every choral group could and should be singing.”

It took some detective work by LeClair, a Brandeis visiting scholar in the Women’s Research Center, to resurrect the lost scores. Although published long ago by Oxford University Press, only three remain in the catalogue. Finally, as LeClair explained to me during intermission, she identified an organization that retrieves out-of-print music, and the entire trove was eventually rediscovered.

Clarke herself had an equally patchy career.  Born of a German mother and American father, she grew up in England. As an outstanding violinist, she was one of the first female musicians accepted in a fully professional ensemble, moving to the United States in 1916. She achieved recognition for her viola sonata (1920) and piano trio (1921).

Clarke produced nearly 100 works (songs, choral works, chamber and piano solo compositions) but only 20 pieces were published during her lifetime. When she died in 1979, aged 93, all were out of print.

Her music is “striking for its passion and power”, covering a range of 20th century styles, wrote Liane Curtis, a Brandeis musicologist and president of the Rebecca Clarke Society, in the program notes

The audience, by all evidence, fully agreed.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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