Celebrating their Silver Jubilee this year, the Musicians of the Old Post Road are known for presenting engrossing concerts with expert musicianship in a compelling historical contexts. Saturday night’s collaboration with Schola Cantorum, titled “The Night Before Christmas: Christmas from Olde and New England,” was held in the First Parish Church in Sudbury, U.U., a 1797 meetinghouse with plain white walls and straight pews, though festively decorated for the season. At first I was worried about the sound of the space, but as the church filled, the echo receded and an excellent acoustic emerged.
After a brief and interesting lecture by Lee Swanson, Curator of the Sudbury Historical Society, on silence and celebration in Puritan New England, (“…if this were the 18th century and I were a constable, I could fine you 5 shillings for celebrating Christmas”), the concert began in earnest. Many of the works were drawn from the old West Gallery tradition, an 18th Century English parochial practice in which a choir and an instrumental ensemble would be formed in order to improve the local congregation’s singing volume and intonation of their anthems and fuging tunes. Although these choirs were at first meant to support the local congregation, they soon became more experienced in performance and demanded and received more sophisticated music, thus effectively silencing the congregation.
The first half of the afternoon’s program focused on works by 18th-century English composers such as William Gifford and Samuel Wesley. Particularly interesting was Wesley’s rondo on “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” originally written for piano solo, which was arranged by the ensemble for flute and strings. In the performance, one could hear the near-telepathic musical connection between Ryan and Stumpf which is the foundation of the ensemble. After intermission, the topic turned to the “American Originals,” extending from the anthems of William Billings to Lowell Mason’s 19th century works. The performance of “Adeste fideles” in Latin then in colonial English and woven together with an Irish Symphony on the tune was particularly beautiful. However, the highlight of the second half was the “Cradle Hymn” sung by soprano Vicky Reichert. After so many choral pieces, the shift to Reichert’s solo song, gently accompanied by the ensemble, created an intimacy charged with her musical intelligence and supported by her voice’s rich resonance.
For the last piece, Mason’s arrangement of “Joy to the World,” the audience was instructed to sing the fourth strophe, and when the time came, the Schola Cantorum ventured out into the aisle to sing with us. The room immediately brightened and smiles blossomed on every face in the audience as the very air seemed to come alive with the magnificent sound. Then, to my great disappointment, the singers immediately returned to the stage and the show was over. After an amazing concert in which and we also learned a great deal of music history, why not let us sing a carol or two? History seems to have repeated itself because this modern West Gallery also silenced the congregation.