A full house turned out on Saturday evening for “Endlesse Perfectnesse,” the latest musical offering from Boston Cecilia. The mostly choral concert at All Saints Parish in Brookline stretched well into the evening, the pews packed and even the overflow seats brimming.
The program featured four elements in various combinations: the 60-odd members of the Cecilia chorus, led by Nicholas White; the dazzling mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh; cellist Sam Ou; and organist Barbara Bruns. The chorus never left the risers for long, but its breaks were aptly filled by musical episodes from the featured soloists. The concert was subtitled “Music for All Souls”, a reference to the Christian liturgical calendar and the thematic glue for much of the program.
A trio of choral motets by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) began the evening. To listeners unfamiliar with the composer, his style suggests early Vaughan Williams or Holst—no surprise, given that these better-known composers were his students. For the first, “Justorum Animae” (The souls of the righteous), Nicholas White drew a malleable sound from the choir that he worked into deliciously dark tones for textual moments such as the word malitiae (wicked). In the second, “Caelos ascendit hodie” (He has ascended today), White led his singers with taut shoulders and a tightly controlled energy, unleashing this force selectively and to great effect with cascading “Alleluias” from the double choir. The third motet, “Beati quorum via” (Blessed are those)—more economically written—was treated as a study in contrast: straight tone for the first verse, describing the pure and undefiled; a warmer sound in the second, when speaking of God; and something in the middle for the first verse’s reprise. The general choral sound was full without being overwhelming, agile instead of beefy. Diction was precise and synchronized, but ending consonants could have been a little bit more pronounced without overwhelming the space.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) “Domine adjutor meus” (O Lord, my strength) featured mezzo-soprano, cello, and organ in a delicious song. Emily Marvosh’s vocal vibrato was measured, rich, and varied for color and dramatic effect; cellist Sam Ou matched hers in color while finding his own shadings in more soloistic passages, supported by Barbara Bruns on the organ. The three worked together with the elegant balance of a lustrous trio sonata.
The choir returned for “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” a sonically disturbing but effective piece by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Although Howells was also a student of Stanford’s, little of the teacher’s sound remains in this piece commissioned in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although now almost 50 years old (it appeared on this program to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death), the motet’s dissonant sound discomforts the listener far more than the text or even the circumstances of the commission might suggest. This is not a piece of weeping or a celebration of a life: it is a lamentation of a sudden and terrible death, filled with anguish. The choir began this piece with a covered, distant sound, as if approaching from a distance; as the verses took shape, White stirred this into slowly rolling waves of sound that broke into an (appropriately) painful mass of anguish. Without the beautiful pieces before and after, it would likely have been too much. This was a strong exhibition piece for the chorus’s recently expanded numbers, used to great effect and producing a notable depth of sound at the dynamic extremes.
Sam Ou and Barbara Bruns returned after this for Saint-Saëns’s simple Prière (Prayer), a character piece for cello and organ that evokes a private moment of prayer in a church. The texture and construction of this piece may be simple and transparent, but the execution on Saturday night was quasi-operatic as Ou evoked episodes of wandering thoughts, trite repetitions, doubts, and heartfelt honesty. As a musical digestif, it also banished the preceding affliction.
The last piece before intermission was William Henry Harris’ (1883-1973) “Faire is the Heaven.” Although its billing as “one of the choral gems of the 20th century” is too kind, the piece is not badly written and does have its moments. Placing this piece earlier in the program, when the choir was more rested, might have showed it off better than the evening did.
The final musical work, comprising the whole of the second half, was a complete rendition of the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Although the acoustic and audience of All Saints Parish were quite friendly to strings, sadly no violas came out to trick-or-treat: the edition performed was that for organ and choir. The length of the work exposed some rougher spots—choppy tempi here and there, a few noticeable pitch issues, and a number of entrances that weren’t quite together. On the other hand, the Kyrie was finely balanced, the “Pie Jesu” (also featuring Ou and Marvosh in one last reprise) stellar, and the softer conducting style used by White in the Lux Aeterna exquisite in its effect. The angels of “In Paradisum” may have sounded a little weary by the time this final movement arrived, but such fatigue is hard to evade in a program of this length.
A final directorial touch by White put the close on the evening. As the last strains of “In Paradisum” faded away, the conductor remained poised at his podium, the whole choir frozen before him and the audience holding back. Only after a long pause—almost half a minute, it seemed—did he finally relax and release the pent-up pause. This evocation of the value of silence did much to put the musical evening in perspective, especially in letting the impact of the full Requiem Mass settle. The applause was long and loud.