One-hundred-twenty-five voices strong, Back Bay Chorale flooded St.Paul’s Church Cambridge with upsurges of Christian utterance, including several short ones by American composers and and extended one of Frenchman Maurice Duruflé, his greatly transporting Requiem.
Saturday evening’s embrace of spirituality began with the familiar “Northfield” composed by Andover, Massachusetts-born Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1828). His rousing fuguing tune, here taken in downbeat-upbeat pulsation rather than the traditional downbeat-downbeat, displaced old-style communal singing with performance-based attitude. But Ingalls soon became mixed in with a work by Ingram Marshall (b. 1942), “Hymnodic Delays: Bright Hour Delayed” on a text from The Christian Harmony of 1805.
“Exploration” was one of a few words I could discern sitting near the narthex of the cavernous sounding St. Paul’s. In his introductory talk, Music Director Scott Allen Jarrett seemed to suggest some concern for how sonorities would “move around.” There was just enough complexity and velocity in the Marshall-Jarrett outing to leave no real time to savor sonority.
Greater transparency came with “We Remember Them” of a younger composer, Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978) especially due to the soloist Becca Kornet’s lovely lead-ins to simpler, surer harmonies, and a slower delivery. Dictation was spot on.
A still younger composer, Jake Runestad (b. 1986), continued the a cappella side of the Back Bay’s spiritual program with “I will lift my eyes,” Americana surfacing in a conservative setting of Psalm 121. A massive climax came with “He is the maker of heaven and earth,” showed what 125 voices can do!
That there was no program note on who was conducting Quartre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégorian of Maurice Duruflé (1901-1986) suggested a keener eye need be given Back Bay’s thick concert booklet containing information for its entire season. The oft-sung Ubi caritas here was bland both harmonically and dynamically. The less-often-sung three motets which followed fared about the same.
In Morten Lauridsen’s (b. 1943) setting of the same text, a highly crafted choral sound with somewhat overworked choric rhythm, Ubi caritas et amor lost a good deal of its sonic luster with the staggering multitude of Back Bay voices. Overall, the American portion of the program barely got off the ground, a bit too much weight, not always a completely clean-cut a cappella singing.
Finally came the work that stands high above so many others, the beloved requiem setting by Maurice Duruflé, his opus 9 completed in 1947. Its nine movements bearing the stamp of Gregorian chant throughout nevertheless accede to an enormously personalized expression —an overwhelming sense of piety.
Even from far away, Scott Alan Jarrett’s conducting could be seen flowing with this miraculous musical bloodstream which the intensely believing French Catholic generated onto the olden texts sung for well over a millennium. And from the very opening organ undulations via Justin T. Blackwell, it was evident a moving offering was already fully underway.
The Introit and Kyrie ascended with ebb-and-flow waves of emotional devotion. Domine Jesu Christe darkened the sanctuary, Blackwell going to deep pedal work. This movement turned bright, then terrifying; the Back Bay Chorale never disappointed with full-throttled engagement.
In the Sanctus, a huge goose-bump engendering “Hosanna in excelsis” from the throng of singers burst forth, only to be countered with an openly touching, soul-searching Pie Jesu from mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias, whose vast tone-scape compels a listener’s total vigilance. Cellist Sassan Haghighi stepped in with plaintive lines that complemented Lias and Blackwell.
A double-star must be given Back Bay’s Agnus Dei for its matching male and female chanting. And enough cannot be said about Blackwell’s sensitively nuanced and exceptionally orchestrated organ playing that was absolutely absorbing, just the right amount of strings and reeds and the right placement.
Libera me took the sopranos high once again where, as in other such preceding passages, they missed rounding off their tone. The massive chorus itself ran into small but noticeable fuzzinesses at phrase beginnings and endings.
The Back Bay Chorale left a near-packed church suspended in In Paradisum.