Masterworks Chorale’s concert this past Sunday under conductor Kevin Leong had a festive air about it, taking full advantage of Old South Church’s Skinner Organ, which began life in Saint Paul, Minnesota as a civic instrument; after being purchased by Old South Church in 1981, it received a very successful restoration. Virtuoso Ross Wood, who had appeared last year in this venue with Masterworks, assisted in a program chock full of less-well-known but well-chosen largely British and American pieces for chorus, organ eight brass and 2 percussionists which I’d be glad to hear again.
The exuberant Clap Your Hands (1920) by Vaughan Williams provided an affecting setting of Psalm 47, with brass, organ, and percussion. Apparently, the Beatles incorporated a two-measure fragment into their 1968 collage “Revolution 9.” Another luminous psalm setting, The Lord is my Shepherd” by Randall Thompson provided a gorgeous, meditative setting of the well-known 23rd Psalm, with an important piano part, elegantly played by Wood.
Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) seven-movement (four for brass and timpani, three for chorus) Funeral Music for Queen Mary, first solemnized the funeral of Mary II of England in March 1695. Purcell’s setting of “Thou knowest, Lord” was performed at the composer’s funeral in November of the same year. Its close, chromatic harmonies are particularly pungent.
Before two pieces by Dominick Argento (1927-2019): Sanctus from The Masque of Angel” and Gloria (from the same) with organ, Leong admiringly explained that “he made genres that were given to us as his own, and as vessels of his music.” Leong deeply respected Argento, who died on February 20th, Leong gave a beautiful tribute. Argento explained in an interview, “For me, it’s been a love affair with my community here. I think of myself as a Minnesota composer.”
The mighty combination of Wood and the Skinner certainly impressed again in Leo Sowerby’s (1895-1968) Tocatta. Hubert Parry’s majestic (1848-1918) I was Glad has enlivened every English coronation since King Edward VII’s; it uses a text based on Psalm 122, which speaks of the unity, peace, and prosperity of Jerusalem, understood here to be Britain.
Lovely a cappella works followed. Irish composer and conductor Charles Villiers Stanford is better known for his students (Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Herbert Howells) than for his own compositions, but I adored his four-minute Beati quorum via (1890—gorgeous and moving! Harvard commissioned the American composer and conductor Steven Sametz (B. 1954) to celebrate the 25th year of the beloved Jameson Marvin’s tenure as choral director there. Looking over the manuscript, I notice it originally contained a spare but lovely optional harp part. Maybe next time?
John Rutter (b. 1945), the incredibly popular King of 20th and 21st-century Choral Music, sells between 50,000 and 100,000 CDs every year. His Gloria for Chorus, Brass, Organ and Percussion stole the show in an 18-minute grand finale. Rutter described this work as having “a mixture of influences: Walton (who knew a thing or two about brass bands, and festive and ceremonial writing), Stravinsky, Poulenc, and running like a thread through the whole work, Gregorian chant.” Rutter can write quiet, tender, moving music and boisterous, jubilant music that makes you want to get up and join the singers. It’s easy to listen to, and, well, fun.
The 75 singers of Masterworks Chorale, their conductor Kevin Leong, Ross Wood and his fellow musicians deserve a bouquet of accolades for this truly lovely afternoon.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.