Last April, Cappella Clausura offered “chant in context,” in which female singers costumed as nuns presented the sacred hours from a single liturgical book whose illuminated scenes were enlarged and hung in surrounding the space. Samples of food and drink of the era gave us a further taste of the daily life inside a convent.
In contrast, last Saturday’s “Soundings” invited us to “sit inside the chant” —less as historical recreation than as an immersion (surrounded from all sides) in a buffet of spiritual music drawn from or referencing Christian tradition in fresh ways. Director Amy LeClair and her ensemble (12 voices and several instruments) brought the chant to life with variety and spontaneity; the cumulative effect was inspiring and exhilarating.
Laudas, Italian hymns of the 14th century, framed the concert, as vivacious processionals in which the singers briskly circled the audience (stirring the air as they passed), accompanied by interweavings of harps, flute and hand drum. Soloists sang with fervor, and the chorus responded with energetic refrains. The affect was of passionate devotion rather than lugubrious solemnity.
Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century nun and all-around genius, was a brilliant melodist, as the warm singing of the ensemble emphasized. LeClair’s arrangement added polyphonic layers, and in “O Vivens Fons,” descending imitative rivulets illustrating the streaming waters, though the instrumental noodlings she added here tended to thicken the texture a bit too much; I wanted more focus on Hildegard’s melody.
Patricia Van Ness, Boston’s own Hildegard, has in recent years created a body of sacred music that inspires with soothing depth and mind-expanding, slowly shifting sonorities. She contributed three works to the program, including “Cor Meum,” which revealed her also as poet; the calming meditation of gratitude was built over a simple, repeating bass line.
Raffaella Aleotti, the composer-nun of the late 16th– early 17th-century was represented by a solemn prayer of stately polyphony. Cappella Clausura has brought this composer’s earlier secular work to light (as Vittoria, before she entered the convent) in its outstanding CD, “Passionately UnConventional.” I was moved by this sacred entreaty.
A Corsican folk-inspired rendition (within a series of prayers for mercy) with pungent and even raspy vocal timbres served as an astringent and refreshing palate cleanser.
These were all sung with the ensemble in various resonant configurations around the listeners. The only instance where this creative placement showed any weakness was in the polyphonic motet by Margaret of Austria, where a plaintive lament in French is set over a Latin cantus firmus. With the singers at distance from one another, the lines did not quite mesh.
Plenty of traditional chant was also present; Poulenc’s sweet and piquant Salve Regina contrasted with the sonorous resonance of the monophonic version that followed. With Poulenc, and also Stravinsky’s Pater Noster, one wonders if there was a modern wryness in some of the contrarian text setting: Poulenc with “ad te CLA-ma-mus” rather that “ad te cla-MA-mus” and Stravinsky with “PA-ter nos-TER” rather than “PA-ter NOS-ter.” At any rate, the texts were revealed with simplicity and freshness.
LeClair’s own setting of “Psalm 183” provided another fresh take. I’m sure that most of you would have realized sooner than I, that since there are only 150 Biblical Psalms, this was LeClair’s original poem. Original with a capital “O”, its clangorous verve draws from the tone of Gertrude Stein and the Beat Poets (“Alleluia for the chaotic reason of it all, the absolute random beyond wish and longing….”). The setting has the verses in a polyphonic recitation, one laced with edgy dissonances but coming to rest on an open sonority. In its cross-relations and clear declamation, the flavor evokes English settings of the 16th century. The choir sang it responsorially, with quartets of singers exchanging the verses and uniting powerfully for the final three lines. LeClair’s other setting was of Denise Levertov’s poem “Night Whistles,” a compelling prayer of urgent gratitude. LeClair revealed herself as a composer of poignant depth in these works.
We also heard Duruflé, and the 9th-century Greek composer Kassia. The venue of Emmanuel Church’s Lindsay Chapel was an apt and resonant space. Listeners who missed it or want to hear it again should take in at Eliot Church in Newton today at 4:00. Tickets and the entire program available here.