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Big Back Bay Fuels Vaughan Williams


Ralph Vaughan Williams ca 1900

Much anticipation surrounded the Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra’s rare American excursion into the realm of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The community chorus of one-hundred plus stood grandly behind a good-sized orchestra—grand in its own way. “Essential Voices” unfolded at Sanders Theater before a strong and clearly enthusiastic Mothers’ Day crowd.

“Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” caught hold, Back Bay’s strings tendering its 20th-century essence of fauxbourdon with authenticity and splendor. “Toward the Unknown Region” promised much until midway when the full Back Bay Orchestra began channeling the Chorale more toward middle-ground. With the concluding big number, Dona Nobis Pacem, came, alternatingly, magnificence and opacity. Nevertheless, those on hand sent rounds and rounds of roars for Back Bay’s congratulatory salute.

The son of a clergyman, Vaughn Williams set Walt Whitman, Latin Mass, and scriptures from Old and New Testaments. Yet, Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote of her late husband, “He was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.” Also of note, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a great nephew of Charles Darwin.

 “Dives” is Latin for the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, and at his gate lies a poor hungry Lazarus, covered with sores. Back Bay Chorale preceded the purely instrumental “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” with the hymn tune “Kingsfold” upon which the composition is based. Kingsfold soloists, sopranos Patricia Driscoll and Meredith Hall, alto Rose Filipp, and bass Joe Mancias offered reverent antiphonies topped off by a worshipful, excellently restrained Chorale.

Divided into as many as 15 parts, Back Bay’s strings wove the abounding polyphonic textures with great care. Harpist Franziska Huhn melded just right as golden colorist. Concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill and cellist David Russel in solo roles evinced longed-for innermost warmth. Through a leanness of conducting, Scott Allen Jarrett’s sharp focus and the orchestra’s single-mindedness, Vaughan Williams’ English modalities found absorbing momentum. A majestic climax followed by a B major harmony, then minor, then major, whispered at first, then declared, and whispered again, made for an impeccable, moving close. 

“Toward the Unknown Region” a Song for chorus and orchestra, takes for its text Darest thou now O soul of Walt Whitman.  Brass fanfares coming with virtual firmness announced the chorus, which continues:

Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

The combined 150 vocalists and instrumentalists rang out in assured mien.

No map there, nor guide
nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand.

These lines issued forth bravely, markedly, surely drama-bent from the Back Bay Chorale with the Orchestra steering a mystifyingly, GPS-less course to a rush of emotion.

Keeping up with Whitman’s text then became a challenge even with the printed words in front of me. I wondered, what do the authors of the texts truly think in such occurrences, when their words are lost to the powers of music?

The obviously well-prepared Chorale sparked in high registers, streamed effectually in unisons, and breathed beauteousness in softer passages. As in “Toward the Unknown Region,” the big concluding work Dona Nobis Pacem surged and surged again, but here a music that seemed could not sit still long enough.

Something of a short circuit resulted. Too few valleys and too many peaks from a steamed up orchestra disallowed the huge endeavor from becoming fully and completely charged.

Still came other high points. Christina Pier’s remarkable soprano illuminated the peaceful Vaughan Williams in gleams of pleading and resolving. Sumner Thompson’s all-embracing baritone thoroughly energized declarations of We looked for peace, but no good came…

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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