Sunday’s Coro Allegro concert at the Church of the Covenant contained two large works for chorus and orchestra separated by almost 300 years. One of them evoked ancient chants and eternal verities; the other was a brash display piece written by a young composer anxious to display what he can do with large forces. The brash young man in this case was George Frideric Handel, who wrote his Dixit Dominus at the age of 22; and the work that looks back to the past is the Te Deum of Estonian Arvo Pärt, written in 1984 and revised in 1992.
Pärt began his career writing serialist works, and then suffered an artistic crisis. To bring himself out of it he began studying Gregorian chant. He emerged with a profoundly deepened Christian faith, and a musical voice that is distinctly his own yet heavily redolent of ancient church music. The Te Deum lasts more than half an hour, a setting of a hymn of praise that is sung at Lauds on Sundays and on other important days in the Church calendar. At the opening and closing there is a deep drone from the organ, rooting the piece in a fundamental bass tone, out of which the music emerges. Each line is treated as a unit: often it is sung once as a chant, with no harmony and no fixed rhythm; then sung again with a halo of shifting harmonies around the chant. These restatements were the occasion of the finest singing from the Coro: the sudden effulgence of chords on the restatement of the second line, “Te aeternum Patrem”, was rich enough one could feel the sound move out into the space over one’s head; the effect recurred with “Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus,” but this time with an exquisite fragility. The Coro Allegro performed the Boston premiere of the Te Deum in 1992, and the organization clearly maintains a strong connection to it: the final minutes, where the text asks for mercy and protection, than echoes “Sanctus” into silence, were deeply moving, and held the audience rapt for many long seconds before anyone dared to break the silence with applause.
Dixit Dominus is many things, but “deeply moving” isn’t one of them. Not that Handel doesn’t create some fine and touching moments, but are all of them brief, as if having made one artistic point he was anxious to move on to the next. Dixit Dominus consists of nine movements that set Psalm 110, “The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand,” which meditates on the power of a king and of God, and “power” is really what Dixit Dominus is about. It calls for significant forces: in addition to the chorus and orchestra, there are parts for five soloists, performed by Sonja Tengblad and Barbara Kilduff, sopranos; Clare McNamara, alto; Omar Najmi, tenor; and Bill Donelan, bass. However, the soloists are used sparingly: only McNamara and Tengblad got enough stage time for one to take their proper measure, each getting a solo aria early in the work. McNamara has a warm and inviting voice, and she gave close attention to making sense of the text, her long melismas never turning into mere music-making. Tengblad’s soprano was ideally suited to the Church, which resonated sympathetically with her overtones, filling the space with her voice without any harshness or apparent effort.
However, there were serious problems with the orchestra in both works. Under the direction of Artistic Director David Hodgkins, the instrumentalists sounded under-rehearsed. In the Pärt this was evident mostly in issues with pitch and in uneven entries. The orchestral writing in that work is deceptively simple, but it also dangerously exposed. Pärt’s devotional atmosphere requires the music be executed with better precision and accuracy than were on display here. However, in the Handel things were in worse shape. The opening figures in the orchestra were just a smear of sound; in the alto aria the singer and continuo were not always in full agreement. A similar lack of coordination came perilously close to derailing “Dominus a dextris tuis.”
The musicianship of the chorus and the evident love and passion that goes into its singing is undeniable; in the Handel, the Coro again excelled in the largest movements, the violence of “Judicabit in nationibus” was invigorating, and the ending massive “Gloria Patri” exhilarating. As an exhibition of choral prowess, the concert was impressive, but the overall achievement was not entirely artistically complete and satisfying.