It was occasionally the best of times and hardly ever the worst of times for community singing after the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus mounted the Sanders Theater stage last night to project the cosseted Hubert Parry’s celebratory paeans to the not yet waning British Empire. What a glorious if top-dominant sound the enthusiastic 30-30-13-13 contingent made when the exuberant if imperfectly attuned orchestra of freelancers wasn’t covering them. In the opener, Parry’s inspired ode to music Blest Pair of Sirens, one could imagine the forces streaming in from bleak collieries and dark satanic mills to praise the privileges of their betters, whose Teutonophilic sentiments echoed in Parry’s quotations from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, that most nationalistic of operas (we had to wait until the very end of the concert for the “Prize Song”). Politics aside, John Milton’s lofty poem resonated inspiringly in “perfect diapason.”
The short first half ended with the composer’s hymn “Repton” (from the oratorio Judith) set to Whittier’s “Dear Lord and Father.” Unfortunately, the “earthquake, wind, and fire” of Noel Tredinnick’s unidiomatic BBC-TV over-orchestration prevented the chorus from evoking the American poet’s “still voice of calm.”
The preceding and concluding tidbits of conductor Edward Elwyn Jones’s “A Parry Premiere: Invocation to Music, and a Variety of Tidbits,” served to frame Parry’s Invocation to Music, an Ode (in Honor of Henry Purcell). After the promising Brahmsian overture, British poet laureate Frank Bridges’s inane couplets rued the departure of the muse of music from the British Isles after the death of Purcell, yet Parry’s notes in no manner evoked that greatest of the British composers until Britten (excluding of course adoptees Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn). Baritone soloist Sumner Thompson’s extended lamentations over the missing muse (also Parry’s personal reverie on the death of a brother-in-law) rose to the evening’s high-water mark, rivaling only our own heartfelt bellowing in “Jerusalem.” With tone at once powerful and lyrical, Thompson engaged the emotions as no one else did last night. Jones had earlier shown consideration for the audience when he nearly covered the interminable duet between warbling soprano Deborah Selig and scorebound tenor Gregory Zavracky, who sounded like an unexpected visitor from the Isle of Baroque.
I found little evidence, other than in the Dirge (the baritone’s lamentation), to support Sir Charles’s intimation that the muse had returned to Great Britain to anoint him. The last number, beginning “Thou, O Queen of sinless grace / now to prayer unfold they face,” hardly served to inspire anything as celebratory as the very royal anthem “I Was Glad!”
Invocation proved relentless and undifferentiated, withal, in this traversal, although the chorus must have had a most satisfying time and reason to be thankful for the University’s support. Jones drove his forces with obvious commitment and dramatic engagement but failed to convince this listener that the Invocation, at least without some thoughtful excisions, makes a case for a Parry reconsideration.
Should Jones have programmed an extended a cappella anthem such as Songs of Farewell? The desire to extract maximum value from an expensive orchestra is understandable, but one would like to have heard more of the uncovered chorus in the beautifully arched phrases and occasional “daintiness” that the 1st Baronet requires for maximum effect.
For a benediction, Jones invited all to stand and give our lusty best in the evening’s Prize Song, “Jerusalem,” and so we volleyed our vocal arrows of desire.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer