in: Reviews

November 6, 2013

Old South Church Resounds for CPM

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Sunday afternoon was a mere month after Chorus Pro Musica performed with Benjamin Zander in Symphony Hall in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The moment was not insignificant—now in its 65th year, the ensemble recently changed music directors, placing Jamie Kirsch at the helm. As successful as the early October Beethoven performance may have been, Kirsch vividly displayed his abilities and vision as director designate in Boston’s Old South Church in Copley Square with a delightful concert of miniatures—or, at the very least, works smaller than the Ode to Joy—from choral literature of the last three centuries.

The concert began with Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Although both have written significant amounts for choir, it was an odd choice for an opening. Liszt’s Pater Noster, which is taken from his 1873 oratorio Christus, was a response, in part, to Mendelssohn’s Elijah and earlier Christus. His chorus is heavy and sombre—Pater Noster is laden with the tragedy of the composer’s later life. Despite some early mis-steps, CPM’s revealed the dark notes of Liszt’s setting, featuring the men of the choir in rich harmonies that are echoed in the background by the organ. The work never reaches a full roar, always maintaining its meditative quality, and I was thankful to CPM for approaching the piece with this tact—even in the triumphal final Amen, CPM climaxed to a thoughtful swelling, never over-extending into what too easily becomes the “big sing” of the piece. This tempered read extended into the two movements (13 & 14) from Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which fully utilized the surprisingly full bass of the men’s sections. Considering that it was written with bassos of a Russian Orthodox choir in mind, CPM’s nuanced realization neither over-loaded nor under-appreciated the expected delicate balance.

Sandwiched between these were five excerpts from Veljo Tormis’s Sügismaastikud 1964 (Autumn Landscapes). In addition to their lovely spare texture, I was struck by the technically difficult nature of the compositions—frequently different voice parts are written in different keys to introduce different textures. Indeed, this is part of the Tormis’s achievement; that these different sounds from the Estonian landscape, instead of residing in cacophony, resolve cohesively. Sunday afternoon’s performance was richly colored by special attention to Tormis’s deeply nuanced lines.

This was perhaps the best preparation to hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’s setting of Psalm 90—Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge. Scored for chorus, semi-chorus, organ, and trumpet, and contrasting the psalm tones of text with William Croft’s 18th-century setting of the text, St. Anne, the anthem is a chilling yet thoughtful synthesis of old and new, all underpinned by a reticent organ accompaniment. It is only in the final minutes that the trumpet, performed by Seelan Manickam, unifies the parts with a majestic cantus firmus. CPM fared well in the cavernous sanctuary of Old South Church, placing the clean, plainchant-like lines of the semi-chorus pitched starkly against the rich harmonies of the choir.

It induced sharp cognitive dissonance to move from this to Eric Whitacre’s Lenoardo da Vinci Dreams of His Flying Machine. I find it hard to know how to listen to much of his output—Whitacre has become an institution in the choral world, gaining renown in wider culture for his development of the Virtual Choir through YouTube (more on this here or here). And any good surveyor of contemporary choral music would be remiss to ignore Whitacre’s music. But to position  his output—even something as well-received as Leonardo da Vinci Dreams of His Flying Machine—next to Ralph Vaughan Williams (and later, Gerald Finzi) seems to highlight what his music is not. Leonardo is a cantata in three cantos, each introduced by the title of the piece (or slight variation). The work follows DaVinci’s progress: thinking of, designing, and building his machine. Whitacre follows suit, beginning with some interesting tonal clusters that resolve into deeply satisfying expansive harmonies, madrigalian word-painting, and intricate chorales, culminating in imitations of engines and wind machines. But there is something too simple or perhaps cloyingly sweet in the harmonies that resolve to vast chords, something maybe fatuous in the effects that treat the voice like a mechanical instrument. None of my thoughts is meant to diminish CPM’s achievements on Sunday afternoon: to the technically very difficult demands, the choir responded with a clear intonation that revealed the panoply of textures and effects that is required by the grand scale. And perhaps I should be more guarded on my snobbery on this music: the ensemble should be commended on its complete commitment to the work—an achievement that received a well-deserved round of applause from the crowded church (myself included).

The concert concluded with Gerald Finzi’s  Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, commissioned in 1946 for the 53rd anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton—the same institution and patron who had commissioned Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb a mere three years earlier. There are important parallels between the two, least of which are the texts themselves: Britten’s cantata is an ebullient tour de force of Christopher Smart’s fervid poetry. Finzi’s setting takes a similarly obsessive text as its libretto (Richard Crashaw’s translations of hymns by St. Thomas Aquinas), yet interprets it as perhaps a more personal, inward-gazing reply to Britten. CPM’s substantial forces were in particularly fine form, presenting an expertly shaped read of Finzi’s score that somehow managed achieve a maddening combination of labyrinthine, yet exposed vocal lines. Joseph Turbessi’s organ accompaniment throughout the entire concert came to the fore in this finale, presenting an independent voice in concert with that of the choir’s. The collaboration worked in some significant way to explicate a deep sense of the staid anti-drama of the Finzi.

Transitions are always difficult, even for an ensemble in its 65th year. Yet the courage of programming for Sunday’s concert repertoire so unapologetically challenging for both chorus and audience, let alone executing at such high a level, augurs a very bright future indeed for CPM in the hands of Jamie Kirsch.

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

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