Capella Clausura filled Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church with chant and chant-inspired music. Amelia LeClair’s ensemble dedicated to the work of women composers offered music from both genders Saturday, but many more by women than one usually encounters; and although chant was the theme, the expected Hildegard von Bingen was only one woman among many on the program.
The conceit “Resoundings: Sit Inside the Chant” invited those in the nearly sold-out chapel to “… close your eyes and let pure sound overwhelm and delight you, as it emanates throughout the hall.” In the event, though, there was plenty to look at: in addition to the pale stone, high narrow vaulted ceilings and gold-encrusted wall fixtures of Lindsey Chapel itself, the Capella Clausura moved all over the space. The first work, Arvo Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box, was sung at the far end of the space with the performers’ backs to the audience. Following that was the first of three processionals in the program, all of which were drawn from a 14th century collection called the “Laudario di Firenze”. The singers circled the audience several times, soloists singing elaborate verses and the group as a whole singing the simpler but equally impressive refrain. At other moments the group sang antiphonally, sometimes facing each other down among the audience, sometimes further up in the chapel.
The 19 works (not counting the instrumentals) written between the 9th and the 20th centuries broadly shared an origin in chant. None of the material arrived in the austere, monophonic style one may imagine when thinking “chant,” though there was often a characteristic drone, in instruments or in voices.
With so many works to divert one’s attention, one gravitated to those with strong profiles or realizations. From many obscure composers one did not know what to expect. The “Hymn to Pious Pelagia” by Kassia (c. 810-867), an example of Eastern Orthodox chant, sounded otherworldly, in part due to the “liquid” quality of some of the intervals—the singer sliding from one note to the next—as well as to the gentle clouds of improvisation that emerged from the instrumental ensemble. The pure stratospheric high notes heard in Sulpitia Cesis’ (1577-c. 1179) “Ecco Ego Ioannes” rang especially marvelously off the walls of the chapel. Hildegard’s “Rex Noster”, “Our King”, might be assumed to be about God or Christ: instead, it is a unsettled and unsettling tragic work apparently about Herod: “Our King stands ready to accept the life-blood of the Innocents” runs the start of the text, with the pained refrain “And the clouds grieve over that same blood.” The gentle but angular melismas that make up much of the work made an uneasy impression, their athletic beauty haunted by the horror of the text. After much austere and ancient music, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Miserere mei, Deus felt lush and langorous with its prolonged melody and chromatic divagations. The second half contained three works by the German Catholic composer Erna Woll, “Offertorium”, “Wie warden eingebracht”, and “Hab ein einzig Leben nur,” all of which possessed the same strong personality, expressed in dense blocky harmonies that remained tonally comprehensible, supporting a melody or melodies that made both good sense and quick work of the text.
The second half contained some pieces that might have been more familiar: Tomas Luis de Victoria was represented by “Vidi speciosam”, and Francis Poulenc by “Stabat Mater”. Although well-presented, there was something less inspired in these performances, as if their familiarity didn’t kindle quite the same spark. Only one of the works failed to convince, Hilary Tann’s (b. 1947) “The Moor”, whose text cobbled together a nature-as-religion poem by R. S. Thomas with Latin from the Bible and the Welsh hymn “Rheidol”. The music had a snap rhythm to it that promised more liveliness than it could deliver. LeClair’s own “Courage” was a modest work for three female voices whose careful workmanship showed up the rather banal poem by Anne Bradstreet that it accompanied.
The 12 vocalists’ execution shone clean, pure and intelligent, though there were moments in the second half where fatigue seemed to afflict entries or intonation. All of them took solos at least once during the evening with soprano Annie Simons and tenor Killian Mooney remaining most strongly in memory after the fact, Simons for her rich and deeply colored tone, Mooney for his winning and sensitive attention to the expressive quality of words given him. The four-person instrumental ensemble was superb, often sounding as if there must be several more people playing. Mike Williams’ complex and driving percussion enhanced the theatricality of the three Florentine processionals without ever violating their innate stateliness. The acoustic in the chapel was ideal, with no excess reverberation, allowing harmonies to shine while leaving individual vocal lines audible. The works followed quickly one after another, the performers moving quickly but calmly into each new arrangement in the space, allowing no time for applause in between works. During final recessional, the last notes sounded from a distance off stage. After the profound and serious impressions, the prolonged, standing ovation felt as if it had been held in and could not wait to be released.