in: Reviews

June 2, 2014

Lyrical, Spherical and Cosmic

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Friday evening’s concert by the Boston Choral Ensemble at Boston’s Hayden Planetarium began with remarks by planetarium director David Rabkin. “We like to do live music,” he said, adding “we don’t get to do it often.” There is a long history of the planetarium hosting musical performances, although this is the first time the venue has been used for a choral ensemble. The space isn’t necessarily optimal for choral music: the squat, carpeted dome is a far cry from the vaulted reverberant spaces that BCE—indeed, most choruses—tend to perform in. But in many unexpected ways, Friday’s concert was a stunning success. Under the leadership of Andrew Shenton and in collaboration with projectionist Darryl Davis, BCE presented an imaginative collection of rarely performed works that were united in theme under the broad title of a “Cosmic Journey.”

Certainly, the choice of venue made the concert particularly compelling. I should admit that I was initially concerned that the pairing of images of Earth, planets, constellations and stars would prove more of a gimmick than a real partner to the music. But I was an immediate convert to the premise. It was disconcerting in the complete darkness (save for the projected images on the domed ceiling) not to be able to watch the chorus perform, but in compensation, we were overwhelmed with images of space, celestial bodies, and, at times, abstract images. Certainly this is a far more visual experience than a traditional choral concert, but it challenged audience members to engage with the music on a very different level. Indeed, I was struck by how appropriate the planetarium and the projections felt for the program: if much of the Western religious choral repertoire has been written for audiences sitting in in buildings either dedicated to, or adorned with symbols of martyred saints, isn’t it fitting that during a performance of music about stars and planets, audience members be reminded of how the music relates to these spheres?

Of course, in addition to finding intellectual resonance with the subject matter, performance space also plays a very functional role in the expression of choral sound. There is little doubt that Hayden Planetarium is a suboptimal venue for a capella music (the starry pun is certainly not intended), but this doesn’t necessarily apply to all of the works on the program. I was surprised to see how some of these issues were ameliorated by BCE. Given the sonically dead room, the audience was privy to many of the nicks and scratches of choral technique that are usually glossed over in a more live space. These include the rare stray cut-off, the accidental issue with tuning, even the occasional blemishes in the veneer of staggered breathing all become very clear in small, carpeted venues. This transparency didn’t work nearly as well in the more traditional works on Friday evening—David Evan’s hymn For the Beauty of the Earth, and Fred Squatrito’s arrangement of the Appalachian folk song Bright Morning Star.

However other works—specifically pieces with electronic accompaniment (Richard Felciano’s Cosmic Festival, or Calvin Hampton’s O Lord Support Us) fared well in the venue, benefiting from the sonic details that the auditorium clarified. More ambitious pieces, as in the sonically treacherous Gyorgi Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna or Eriks Esenvalds’s Stars—daring choices that were challenging for both audience and ensemble—benefitted greatly from the clarity as well as from the added visual narrative of the projections. What was perhaps most surprising is how well sonically rich selections fared on Friday evening. Ola Gjeilo’s Kyrie from The Spheres is a deeply meditative work that revels in deeply satisfying harmonies. It’s here that BCE’s attention to the drawbacks of the sonically dead auditorium were most obvious—extended vocal lines were well-articulated and sensitively shaped, despite the lack of reverberation in the room. Much the same can be said about Arvo Part’s Morning Star, or Z. Randall Stroope’s We Beheld Once Again the Stars, which concluded the evening. The latter, a setting of text from Dante’s Purgatorio in which Dante leaves Purgatory for heaven fared particularly well in the space. The program also featured a premiere of Zvonimir Nagy’s Eternal Peace, and a 2008 commission for the ensemble by Zachary Wadsworth, Look Down, Fair Moon.

Despite the technical drawbacks of performing in the planetarium, combining the visuals with a well-crafted sound and thoughtful programming yielded a unique marriage. Although the selections may have been easier to perform in a church, the audience certainly gained something from the intimate pairing of these works with the images, and it showed a deep appreciation with a standing ovation.

Friday evening’s performance marked the culmination of an imaginative concert season for the Boston Choral Ensemble. Due to the popularity of this program, BCE repeats these works in the Hayden Planetarium on Thursday, June, 26th.

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

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