For their first concert in two years, Coro Allegro and its conductor David Hodgkins chose a variety of rewarding choral works with which to “. . . mourn the loss of youth and innocence for us all . . . [find] comfort and solace . . . and gratitude to those who worked so hard and risked their own lives”. The chorus has won the Chorus America/ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming, but this should come as no surprise to anyone who has attended the ensemble’s concerts more than once or twice. Long providing a social outlet and musical means of expression for members of the LGBTQ community and their allies, Coro also gives exposure to living composers and unjustly neglected ones no longer among us. Equally praiseworthy, the sound Hodgkins elicits from his singers, while not straight tone, has minimal vibrato, enabling harmonies of all types to come through clearly. Sunday’s concert took place at Boston’s Church of the Covenant, a structure holding National Historic Landmark status as the largest intact Tiffany-designed ecclesiastical interior in America.
Armistice 1918 [Everyone Sang] by Craig Carnahan (b. 1951) opened the concert with a convincing rendering of what the mood (if not the final actions) might have been on the European battlefields in November 1918 when the armistice was announced. Based on a poem of Siegfried Sassoon, Armistice conveys a dichotomy of moods: ecstatic and exuberant alternates with subdued and reflective. Hodgkins, pianist Yulia Yun, and the chorus were all on the same wavelength about this, and every mood shift occurred gracefully and unanimously. Powerful indeed was the build-up to the conclusion, setting the words “. . . and the song was wordless, the singing will never be done.”
A musical setting of a poem by Arab-Israeli poet Salman Masalha by Israeli-born American composer Sivan Eldar (b. 1985), The Song About the Child, took a more contemporary stance. The Terezin Music Foundation’s Executive Director Mark Ludwig had commissioned 82 poems about freedom from 63 world-renowned poets, and commissioned significant emerging composers to set them to music. This one also represented a bifurcation of mood, though here the emphasis was on the dark side, one of the children of the title being born into oppression, darkness, sadness, and misfortune, “who by the sword was slashed, was slain”; the other child—only at the end—is one “who survived . . . who saves us from ourselves lest we die.” Eldar has the soprano soloist sing in Hebrew while the chorus sings in English translation. Though tonal, the musical language is, not surprisingly, more astringent than that of Armistice; also, the soloist (Dorian Maverick of the chorus) utilized humming and vocal glissandos to expressive effect. It inspired us to seek out more of the Terezin Music Foundation’s commissions.
In a similar vein but jumping back over 75 years came two choruses by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944). The talented disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky perished at Auschwitz after spending over two years composing and performing at Terezin (Theresienstadt), the Nazis’ showcase camp. Eliahu HaNavi stirringly summoned the prophet Elijah to come with the savior, son of David, while Anu Olim fittingly pronounced “We are going up to the land with song.” Coro Allegro charged both brief choruses with longing but also with hope.
A descendant of escaped slaves, R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943, was born in Canada, but lived mostly in the United States. He became one of its first successful African American musicians while pursuing work as a pianist, composer, and teacher. For The Chariot Jubilee, Dett composed his own text, though he incorporated Swing Long, Sweet Chariot’s words as well as its familiar tune. Following a colorful organ introduction played by Heinrich Christensen, soloist Davron S. Monroe entered as something like a preacher, soon joined by the chorus as his congregation. The tenor made a powerful leader one moment and gracefully yielded to the chorus the next. Notably bustling and fun, the final section (“Salvation, sweet cov’nant of our Lord, I shall ride up in the chariot in that morning!”), led into a final peroration of “Swing low” cloaked in some creative harmonies before concluding in a triumphal “Hallelujah!”
For remembrance and reverence for those lost to the pandemic, Hodgkins and Coro Allegro turned to Fauré’s Requiem in D Minor. Hodgkins coaxed the tiny orchestra, organ, and chorus to observe the somber Introit’s plethora of dynamic contrasts, and achieved powerful emotional effect. The gentle Offertory supplied a moving mixture of light and dark, the altos, tenors, and ultimately basses blending seamlessly for the first two pages. While one could not fault baritone Aaron Engebreth’s vocalism, his overly operatic approach and prominent vibrato meshed poorly with his colleagues. The coda, featuring all four choral parts, reached exquisitely celestial levels. Most of Fauré’s Sanctus remained restrained and ethereal with an airy descant melody contributed by violinist Lisa Brooke. For the Hosanna, however, the French horns joined the ensemble, and the choral parts made a joyful noise to the Lord. In the subtly demanding Pie Jesu soprano soloist Adriana Ruiz reached a skillful compromise between lyric mature soprano and boy soprano, giving it both innocence and warmth. For the Agnus Dei, that lovely duet between the violas’ and the tenors’ melodies, no one stinted. The harmonic shift at “Lux aeterna” felt appropriately unearthly. In the Libera me Aaron Engebreth issued a tremulous warning about the day of wrath, the chorus responded fearfully, with horns joining again, as Fauré’s abbreviated judgment day unfolded. With the reprise of the main theme in both chorus and baritone, the movement reached its fearful though now subdued ending. Buoyed by gossamer string sounds and organ obbligato, and featuring light-as-air choral texture, angels led the souls of the departed In paradisum, wrapping the listeners in a warm glow.
Thereafter, and almost attacca, Randall Thompson’s familiar a cappella Alleluia continued the glow of D major. With superb intonation, focus, wide dynamic range, and with numerous dramatic contrasts of dynamics, the group characterized the work well. Coro Allegro and David Hodgkins again combined nearly unknown repertoire with beloved classics to our great satisfaction. It will be a blessing to hear them regularly around Boston again.