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RCS Returns With Departure


Composer Lisa Bielawa

Radcliffe Choral Society’s Un Nouveau Départ (A New Beginning) served as a return to normalcy for the 58 sopranos and altos in the University’s major treble chorus. Not only does their ‘normal’ include singing for the public instead of for cameras, but it also signals commissioning new works. Saturday saw the chorus at a comfortably filled First Church Cambridge along with a sonorous (though watch out for two-on-a-part strings) 15-strong contingent from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The recently re-published orchestrated version of Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville (Mass of the  Fishermen of Villerville) on which Fauré and André Messager collaborated in the summer of 1881, began life as a three-part female chorus with a simple accompaniment for harmonium and solo violin. Soon thereafter, the composers orchestrated the five sections: Kyrie (Messager), Gloria (Fauré), Sanctus (Fauré), O Salutaris (Messager), Agnus Dei (Fauré). Faure’s parts of this material later ended up in his Messe basse.

In the reverberant echo chamber that is the sanctuary of First Church, a sumptuous if consonant-starved blend of women’s voices, strings, winds and organs bloomed charmingly and Gallically if not galactically. We were grateful for the bass lines from the instruments. Getting the words across through masks into the gauzy space and into our ears proved problematic, though there are no surprises in the Latin text. For the most part the Mass was sung straight through, with few repeated phrases. And if the liturgical parts sounded rather undifferentiated, rising from very reflective to somewhat reflective (only the Laudamus te danced), we enjoyed floating in that worshipful French cloud. Some fine details struck us, such as a marvelously serpentine and nasal oboe (Jennifer Slowick) and Rachel Broude’s eloquent flute. Conductor Andrew Clark shaped Fauré’s and Messsager’s Mass into a fine peaceable kingdom.

Of RCS commission recipient Lisa Bielawa’s Land Sea Sky, one can read much more in our interview with the composer HERE. The world premiere (with the composer present) of the “participatory” work bases its three movements (they “interact by being distinct from one another”) on rather workaday (if occasionally lofty) narratives. Bielawa turned Edith Knight Magak’s diary entries of a bus trip into Land, with easy, sassy, rhythmic a cappella enthusiasm which could have passed for some of the Bartok-Kodaly folk song settings for girls’ chorus…though without the songs. “I doze off thinking about cats” inspired some hauntingly pungent open harmonies.

The Sea section delivered an almost oceanic orchestral introduction, as the sailing ship Pacific worked its way across the Atlantic in 1832 to bring Fanny Kemble to New York City. Bielawa transmogrified Kemble’s account with great attention to the words. Indeed, she achieved her mission of being “almost babyishly obvious” in her illumings. As the “black sea swelled and rose… [afterwards] we lay rocking, becalmed” expressive swells and juicy slides from singers and players transmitted the picture. “…we managed to keep ourselves warm by singing” produced that effect in the house. A rich, confused modern and almost angry sonic bedlam answered for “dripping, dark, and very disagreeable.” Finally, as “… the chain went down…and there lay New York before us,” the music ended with something approaching exaltation.

Bielawa’s developed her view of the Sky from Mme. Elizabeth Thible’s (1784) account of ascending in a balloon while singing. The chorus alternated French and English, though the affect felt distinctly more French. The chorus alternated almost sprechstimme unison passages with richly harmonized ones; an antiphonal contingent projected its rapture from the balcony, with Caitlin Paul, Abigail White and Helena Abney-McPeek delivering confident solos. The textures of oboe, horn and strings in some slight ways looked back to Fauré. “In this commanding calm, it is so easy to forget the poor globe we leave behind. How can one not reflect, while watching the eagle soar beneath one’s feet.” And how easy it was to enjoy Bielawa’s conjury of three vary diverse views of the world into harmoniousness, because, according to Bielawa, “… there’s something so joyful about being able to come together and do stuff.”

Perhaps because the Radcliffe Choral Society has done works of Nancy Galbraith before, and conductor Andrew Clark has worked with the Carnegie Melon professor there and elsewhere, their rendition of the composer’s Four Nature Canticles (for SSAA Chorus and Chamber Orchestra) from 2012 came across with richly developed advocacy. Galbraith had the good sense to pick Emily Dickinson, Robert Browning, James Joyce and Robert Frost as her librettists. One could generalize from hearing this single work that her music is singable, accessible, agreeable, lively, sensitive to emotions in the text, and really very useful and satisfying.

Nancy Galbraith and Andrew Clark

Last night, in addition to fine unison text setting in authentic speech rhythms, we heard lots of soaring open parallel motion in thirds from the choristers punctuated by orchestral interjections. Palpable orchestral moods colored the voices brilliantly, and together with the vocals, elucidated and improved the already fine poetry. Galbraith’s lyrical impulse warms with great friendliness to singers and audiences, but she tempers that nostalgic outlook with signal freshness. From this work one could conclude that she is an unabashed if advanced Thompsonian. And there is no reason at all to feel abashed!

As Dickinson begins “A something in a summer day/as slow her flambeaux burn away/ which solemnizes me,” flute and piano set the tone before orchestra expands into a reverie of wonderment. The chorus enters in unison, then two parts; the orchestra comes back and another unison choral statement expands into multiple lines. Galbraith wraps orchestra and chorus around each other in a sinuous embrace, and she develops a very chewy role for the piano as an instrumental voice rather than serving as an accompano. 

Galbraith’s musicing of Browning’s “My Star” put us in mind of “Choose Something Like a Star” from Frostiana even before the first note sounded. After an agitato opening, gorgeous orchestral interludes alternated with singing both well syncopated and poignantly relaxed.  Her underscoring of dramatic moments such as “My star …dartles the red and blue! / Then is stopped like a bird…” stopped our hearts.

Heartfelt quests from the contrabass opening into mysterioso questing tremolos and harmonics set up Joyce’s “Dewy Dream,” which could be the motto of the entire set. The luminous tone painting of “Eastward the gradual dawn prevails left no mistaking the intended mood. We trembled in anticipation. And as “The flowery bells of morn are stirred,” we hear their motions.

The closing number, Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring,” sprang as a savory, upbeat, dancing, spiritual—an inclusive paean to nature and God’s love. The orchestra functioned as musical bees and flowers as the singers channeled irrepressible joy.

Tuition-paying parents got their money’s worth.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


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