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Pärting the Mass with Coro Allegro


A large congregation gathered in Back Bay’s Church of the Covenant on Sunday November 24th for Coro Allegro’s warm and well-crafted performances of religious-themed, millennium-spanning settings of Ave Maria, Pärt’s Berliner Messe, Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, and Corigliano’s Fern Hill with Krista River as soloist.

The concert opened with four settings of Ave Maria, each separated by the ringing of a handbell. The anonymous 10th-century plainchant showcased the purity of the women’s voices, while the setting attributed to de Victoria highlighted the interesting harmonic language associated with this Spanish renaissance composer and his followers. Bruckner’s Ave Maria was a cogent and powerful reading demonstrating the ensemble’s breadth of expression and range of volume. Kevin Memley (born 1971) brought this setting into the 21st century, as the tune was carried in the lower voices while the higher ones offered a vocalise descant; the whole is a very different musical idiom than the preceding three settings, but interesting for the persistence of text and affect despite the changes. This was a bold and exciting choice on the part of Artistic Director David Hodgkins; this first part was very much a study in subtlety, and a fascinating opportunity to explore one common trope in religious music even as this selection of Ave Maria settings traced connections over the musical longue durée.

This idea of musical exploration continued with Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe (1990), here offered in the later version for chorus and string orchestra. While I know this work from recordings, what I realized from this performance is how very much this work serves as Pärt’s own harmonielehre, mapping the different phases of his compositional output and evolving musical language. The Kyrie explored the mystical dimensions of faith in a deliciously misterioso interpretation. The Gloria opened on a triumphant declaration before turning introspective then ending on a ringing, resonant “Amen.” The Zweiter Alleluiavers was a latter-day plainchant, while the Veni Sante Spiritus took on the character of a Barcarole or Sicilienne as this Holy Spirit clearly made a shipboard arrival. This challenging section was solid and touching, while the Credo essayed approaching and receding waves of sound; then the Sanctus returned us to the misterioso spirit with which this mass setting began.

Following intermission, Coro Allegro raised their voices in Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, a setting of the parable of the Good Samaritan for solo tenor and baritone, plus chorus and chamber orchestra in celebration of the composer’s centenary. Stefan Reed sang the tenor solo but David Kravitz, the announced baritone soloist, had to cancel on short notice due to illness. Fortunately Sumner Thompson, whom Boston often hears with Emmanuel Music, stepped in and delivered masterfully as the Viator, or Traveller, at the center of this tale. Like Britten’s “church parables,” Cantata Misericordium resembles a mini-opera or drama, inhabiting the story fully in music. This touched all the more so thanks to the strongly musical singing and carefully considered phrasing of Thompson. Reed’s Samaritan was a less varied role, well sung but, for me at least, marred by some jarring pronunciation choices.

John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, featuring Krista River, mezzo-soprano was the closer. This setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem of the same name is rich in words and sounds as it explores nostalgia, the passage of time, and memories of young loves; it serves as an elegiac appreciation for the lost green world. Musically, Corigliano recalls Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and, in the latter third, Pärt’s Berliner Messe. River sang effortlessly and with a moving affect which matched the tenor of the poetic text. This was a strong and fitting conclusion.

Once more, I was struck by Hodgkins’s and Coro Allegro’s exciting programming as well as by the high standard of execution. The Pärt was a challenge for Coro Allegro and not their strongest effort, even as moments were thrillingly sublime. One or two passages in the Sanctus of the same work were marked more by timidity than mystery in the orchestra, which was otherwise spot-on. My one consistent issue throughout was with inadequate blending and attacks in the first soprano section, especially in the Bruckner, Victoria, and Pärt’s Agnus Dei. Yet these intermittent issues scarcely hindered Coro Allegro from delivering passion and emotionally richness at an enviable standard.

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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