in: Reviews

May 15, 2017

Stars Singing in the Planetarium

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The Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science does not come to mind as an ideal classical music performance space, but the Boston Choral Ensemble’s “Cosmos,” comprising mostly recent works for (mostly) unaccompanied chorus on the subject of stars, certainly fit, as images of stars and galaxies and clouds and other celestial elements soared overhead during the one-hour show on May 11th.

Despite the sheer surfeit of relaxation in reclining chairs, I remained mostly awake for the elegant, sometimes charming, sometimes exotic, occasionally luscious. It is wonderful to be able to hear a selection of well-sung works for a capella chorus in 4 to 8 vocal parts with such refinement of tone, line, and pitch, beautifully sustained throughout.

The world premiere of Celestial Canticles by Stacy Garrop, a Chicago-based composer had drawn me to the event. Hearing her “Mythology Symphony” on Youtube, left me eager to hear how she dealt with the limitations of choral forces by comparison. Composed on the “star” theme specifically for this program, Celestial Canticles set its three movements to texts by three different poets, in somewhat contrasting ways.

Cloths of Heaven, text by Yeats, moves at a slow pace, with a swelling of choral texture in its unfolding. “The Galaxy,” by Longfellow, is, by comparison, a kind of choral scherzo, expressing the vastness of the milky way. And The Universal spectacle throughout, by Wordsworth, is again at a slower tempo, but with one voice or another sustaining in long notes the word “universal” throughout. The sections reveal beautifully harmonic colors and interesting progressions, something that often seems lacking in unaccompanied choral works.

The rest of the varied show, which, aside from a Robert Schumann work, seemed (no program notes were provided) to have been composed in the last three or four decades. Randall Stroop’s How sweet the moonlight, an extract drawn from The Merchant of Venice, was largely homophonic. R. Murray Schafer’s Epitaph for Moonlight employs some of the extended gestures that he likes to use when depicting natural phenomena. Here that includes cluster chords developing out of voices descending a scale en masse with different voices stopping at different times to hold the pitch they ended on, many long-sustained notes, and a certain amount of downward dramatic swoops.

The late Steven Stucky’s Winter Stars (a Sara Teasdale setting for SATB) began with madrigalisque counterpoint, though in parts it became homophonic to clarify the text expression. I had never heard of Pawel Lukaszewski before, though a Google search tells me he his highly regarded among younger Polish composers. The text is a Latin antiphon that seems furthest away from the theme of the program. The choral writing was the densest of the entire program.

Donald Skirvin’s “Clear Evening” (a movement detached from a longer work, Stars forever, while we sleep) flows gently with parts interacting in 8th notes in some voices, while others carry the text, later moving to a homophonic, rhythmicized statement of the words. Ēriks Ešenvalds is another composer entirely new to me. Stars is another Sara Teasdale setting. Here the chorus is accompanied by sustained chord from musical glasses, a tonal image of the starry firmament high above.

Ola Gjeilo, still another unfamiliar composer, wrote Northern Lights, which despite its title is another setting of a Latin liturgical text, “Pulchra es, amica mea” from the Song of Songs. The piece is beautiful, but I’m not sure how it fit the theme. A setting by Morten Lauridsen one of today’s best-known composers of choral music, with a shimmering setting (with piano accompaniment) of James Agee’s “Sure on this shining night” closed the illustrated concert

The singers of the Boston Choral Ensemble range widely in style, period, and repertory. (Obrecht’s 1487 Saint Donation Mass will be performed at noon on Saturday, June 17, with a lecture-demonstration by Prof. M. Jennifer Bloxam from Williams College.) On this night, they did themselves proud.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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