Oriana Consort wrestled with Advent themes in The Longest Nights, their yuletide concert given this past Saturday evening at First Lutheran Church in Boston. Juxtaposing physical and metaphysical manifestations of light and darkness, the loosely conceived program dispensed clarity and obfuscation in equal measure.
Oriana prides itself on eclectic choices from across the canon; their motto posits “Choral music from seven centuries.” Saturday’s offerings drew from disparate colors of that vast spectrum, including familiar works by Michael Praetorius and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as a rediscovered cantata by little-known Bach contemporary Christoph Graupner and the Massachusetts premiere of The Longest Nights, a cycle by 37-year-old American composer Timothy C. Takach. It would be all but impossible for an ensemble that takes such a sweeping approach to do everything equally well, and performance quality varied accordingly.
Selections came to us in near-chronological order, beginning with four songs on themes of the Nativity taken from Volume Four of Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae. This included the perennial holiday favorite “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.” The chorus sang with warmth and unity, though the broad frankness of their sound seemed at odds with the reserved dignity of this Reformation-era composer. The group’s strict maintenance of straight metrical rhythms, however, kept perfectly to the Lutheran tradition. Pronunciation of Praetorius’ Latin lines had an undeniably American flavor, though the German was conveyed more idiomatically.
Graupner’s rediscovered Advent cantata, Welcher Glanz erhellt den Dampf, followed in what is, according to Music Director Walter Chapin, “likely [its] Massachusetts premiere.” This labor of love for Chapin resulted from his comming across a facsimile of the manuscript score last summer; sufficiently intrigued, he transcribed the work and created a performance edition. The text is allegorical, ruminating on the theme of Christ’s coming union with his “bride,” the earthly church. The composer employs several devices to expound on his theme, including a dialogue between Christ and “the Voice of a Soul.” The engaging music reveals a well-developed creative personality, but is undisputedly also product of its time. Largely forgotten for centuries after his death, Graupner may still be best known for his status as second choice candidate (after Telemann) for the job that eventually went to Johann Sebastian Bach at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche; I was therefore intrigued to note a melodic similarity between the fourth-movement chorale “Wilkommen, süsser Bräutgraum,” and the tenth movement of Bach’s Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147—more commonly known as “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.”
Given Chapin’s extraordinary efforts to bring this to life, one wonders if the ensemble were afforded adequate time to rehearse. Their delivery of this though-provoking curiosity seemed markedly less confident than of any other item on the program. The instrumental ensemble, playing both modern and period instruments, began shakily with a few intonation problems, though they quickly regained footing. Vocalists were at their best in the “tutti” passages, handling the polyphony with skill but lacking the enthusiasm their director so clearly felt. Vocal solos were characterized on the whole by an apparent lack of security and, in some cases, weak or tentative breath support. (Notable exceptions included Sarah Zenir’s lovely bright soprano in portraying “the Voice of a Soul.”) In general this reading might have benefited from an enhanced dynamic palette to help underscore its theological points and illustrate its evocative, unusual text. In all, the cantata’s idiosyncratic merits were evident; it is not surprising that Graupner has received renewed attention from scholars in recent years.
Owing to the unfortunate placement of the piano in First Lutheran’s rear balcony choir loft, the audience was obliged to shift in the pews to observe the choir giving voice to the concert’s titular work, Takach’s The Longest Nights. The composer, winner of Boston Choral Ensemble’s 2011 Commission Competition, is rapidly gaining popularity in choral circles, particularly in his native Minnesota. The Longest Nights appears to be one of his most anticipated compositions yet, with scheduled premieres in 42 different states this season. To judge by this cycle, Takach writes in an accessible, tonal idiom given to sweeping melodic lines, evocative word-painting and cinematic illustrations, reminiscent somewhat of Eric Whitacre.
Each of the cycle’s seven movements takes its text from a different poet, all arranged so as to depict a long winter’s gradual journey into spring, darkness slowly giving way to light. Fueled by the sensitive piano accompaniment of Oriana’s Assistant Director Caroline Harvey, the ensemble seemed most at home in this piece, their tone blossoming with Takach’s smooth yet expressive vocal lines. Takach’s skill in setting text was evident throughout, but was never more effective than in the fourth movement, “Blizzard,” where short, repeated vocal lines overlap to depict snow flurries as rolling chords in the piano recall a blustering wind. The ensemble seemed to relish these effects and conveyed the music and its inherent drama with obvious enjoyment. At their best, Oriana’s singers boast a big, warm, inviting sound, which came beautifully to life in the final movement, “Returning.” Takach has scored a birdcall into this movement, a clear harbinger of the coming spring; this effect was so convincing that it startled me at first hearing. Unable to see the performer from my vantage point in the pews, I half-wondered whether one of the city’s avian residents hadn’t crept into the sanctuary with the aim of auditioning for the choir.
Thankfully for the audience’s craned necks, the ensemble returned to its original place at the front of the sanctuary to launch into the finale, a pair of chorales by Ralph Vaughan Williams followed by his ever-popular Fantasia on Christmas Carols. In the latter, the composer found an adroit interpreter in soloist Anand Dharan. Given the strength of the baritone’s performance, I was surprised that the evening’s last piece should mark his first featured appearance on the program; he was easily the most assured vocalist of the group. He threw himself into his part, physically leaning into the music in a sort of productive tug-of-war with his conductor. Dharan’s light, tawny baritone well matched this repertoire, his athletic delivery and liquid diction absolutely right for the proud, self-conscious “Englishness” of Vaughan Williams’s reimagined folk tunes. He maintained a pleasing tension with the instrumentalists, urging cellist Denise Fan on in the opening bars. For her part, Fan played with a rich, full timbre, which may have come across with more bombast than intended owing to placement of recording mics and First Lutheran’s reactive acoustics.
The chorus’ first entrance in “This is the truth sent from above” was beautifully executed, its soft crescendo eliciting just the kind of ghostly thrill that makes this portentous movement so effective. Though tempi in general were taken at a faster clip than I would have preferred, the third and fourth movements delighted with sprightliness and buoyancy. The women sang with sweetness, the men with boisterous energy. All conveyed the ageless exuberance present in these well-loved carols, tidings of comfort and joy sincerely delivered and gratefully received. With a seamlessly executed final pianissimo, Oriana Consort brought stately grace to the concert’s final moments. The glow emanating from the singers’ faces reflected in the audience’s warm reception; it seemed after all, that light had prevailed.