Masterworks Chorale kicked off its 77th season on Friday night in Sanders Theater with guest conductor and music director search finalist Steven Lipsitt at the helm. The concert spanned centuries and focused on psalmody, sacred and the (somewhat) secular.
Founded in 1940 as the Lexington Choral Society, Masterworks Chorale cycled through three conductors in its early years—a bumpy ride which nonetheless included Lukas Foss conducting the Boston premiere of his oratorio, The Prairie; the ensemble hit its stride in 1952 when Allen Lannom became conductor, a post he held for 53 years. He helped refine the focus on “choral/orchestral music by master composers.” As membership expanded beyond one town and the reputation prospered the chorale assumed its present name. It continues to amaze me how many choral groups the Boston area supports. Many have niches; this one casts a more comprehensive net than others. The auditioned group (singers re-audition every three years) commands a small yet loyal following. Following Lannom, Steven Karidoyanes led the ensemble for the past decade. This season the choristers are performing three concerts, each with a different MD search finalist: Lipsitt, Kevin Leong, and Brian O’Connell. Along the way, the season surveys a wide swath of music.
Lipsitt is no stranger to the Boston music scene. With wide experience (clarinet, voice, composition, improvisation) and double conducting degrees from Yale (choral and orchestral), he offers a wealth of musical knowledge. Currently he is artistic director of VOICES Boston (formerly PALS Children’s Chorus), conductor of the Apollo Club, director of A Besere Velt, and now founding music director of the Bach, Beethoven & Brahms Society (the phoenix arising from the ashes of the Boston Classical Orchestra). A busy man. To this lineup he now seeks to add Masterworks Chorale. Certainly this concert offered an innovative program and showed his interests and skills. Direction generally seemed clear, both for singers and for instrumentalists, with the orchestra perhaps more immediately responsive. He spoke from the stage with passion for the music, covering during stage changes; his remarks were extemporaneous yet easy to follow. He conducted with the score on the stand before him, yet from memory.
Bach’s Cantata 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, a seven-movement work centered on Psalm 25, gives the overall impression of meditation, contemplation, the interiority of religious experience. From the opening Sinfonia, feeling is deep, with the B-minor harmony capturing the profundity of longing for the Lord. The chorus entered with the titular text, beginning with good diction. Soprano Jean Danton sang the aria “Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt” with lovely sound and pure tone, although there were a few balance issues. For the fifth-movement Trio, “Zedern müssen von den Winden,” a semi-chorus from the Chorale sang over a walking bass, the turbulence offering the most explicit drama here. On the whole, I was struck by the initial staid tempo, then the nonmetrical tempo modulations. Generous rubato throughout produced a timeless feeling of yearning and harmony.
Brahms’s motet Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz followed, an a cappella work indebted to Bach, especially the concluding fugato. Another appeal for divine support as balm in troubled times, this music grows in fervor, concluding with a musical setting untethered from the text. Again, the unsteady tempo proved an impediment to immersion in the musical experience.
From this psalmody we turned to Ned Rorem, Two Psalms and a Proverb (1962), where a passage from the latter finds itself nestled between excerpts from the former. The composer’s wry humor shines in this assemblage of texts, all heartfelt, all set with a directness in the musical expression, and yet in the middle a paean to alcoholic excess. It is gorgeous music which I had not heard previously and very much look forward to hearing again soon.
Following intermission, chorus, orchestra, and soloists returned with Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day. In 12 movements, this setting of the Dryden poem explores the power of music and proposes, as it were, a theology founded on this harmony. The whole is a combinatory work, with orchestral passages, airs for soprano and tenor, and choruses. Commencing with a strong reading of the Overture, we move to a tenor recitative; Matthew DiBattista gave strong, rich, and resonant voice to “From harmony, from heaven’ly harmony.” His later air, “Sharp violins proclaim,” proved equally strong. Danton offered a delightful performance of “The soft complaining flute” in tandem with flutist Vanessa Holroyd. Danton’s voice has a sweet spot which pairs well with this work, and she grew in power and projection through the concluding air, “Orpheus could lead the savage race,” the recitative “But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r” and into the finale “As from the pow’r of sacred lays.” For me the highlight was the fourth movement air, “What passion cannot music raise and quell?” when Danton was paired with cellist Colleen McGary-Smith, who gave a stellar performance of this virtuosic bass line, shifting seamlessly from collaborative continuo playing to solo lines.
Stay tuned to see how the remaining two finalists fare with Masterworks Chorale.