Emotionally generous performances of two works written during the COVID pandemic as well as Lili Boulanger’s masterpiece, Psalm 130 “Du fond de l’abime je t’invoque, Iahve, Adonai” (Out of the depths I invoke you, Yahweh, Adonai) highlighted Cappella Clausura first concert in Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill on Saturday. In “Thou” Cappella Clausura’s Artistic Director Amelia LeClair (b. 1951) set a text by America’s first published poet Anne Bradstreet; in “Requiem” composer Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) supplied her own text mostly based on the traditional Latin Requiem text translated to English.
Church of the Redeemer’s exceptionally resonant acoustic, a significant boon to organ and homophonic choral works, proved challenging in much of this program; one hopes that Cappella Clausura will ultimately adapt to it. Fortunately, we had printed texts as all three inspired dramatic music. An excerpt from Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Author to Her Book” spoke to her reaction upon learning that her brother-in-law had taken some of her earlier poems back to England in the 1630s and had them published there without her knowledge or permission. It seems clear from the poem that Bradstreet was none too pleased at having her work widely disseminated before she had polished it. “Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,/Who after birth didst by my side remain,/Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,/Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view . . .” However, she does let slip a modicum of maternal affection for her work: “Yet being mine own, at length affection would/Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.” Amelia LeClair illustrated this dichotomy by juxtaposing restless, slithering figures in the string orchestra and more sustained music in the choral parts. The quasi-cavernous acoustics, often turbid accompaniment, and the singers’ lack of “stage diction” rendered over half of the text incomprehensible though some phrases fortunately did emerge, such as the limping rhythm of “hobling” (sic), the teasing of “In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come”, and the paradoxically lyrical melody of “I cast thee by as one unfit for light.” One could take pleasure that Bradstreet’s striking poem, even abridged, inspired an imaginative setting by LeClair. Too bad then that challenges of this new venue, coupled with casual consonants, undermined a fuller understanding and appreciation..
In Requiem Ruehr’s penchant for more transparent, buoyant textures and having the voices sing one part (or solo) at a time, and having the chorus move largely in rhythmic unison, resulted in improved comprehensibility though here, too, sharper enunciation would not have gone amiss. Fresh harmonies and a yearning quality characterized the first section (“Give to them eternal rest . . .”), and the quartet of soloists—soprano Carol Millard, alto Ashley Mulcahy, tenor Frankie Campofelice, and bass Nathan Halbur—made compelling individual requests of “Hear my prayer”. The second section (“Oh, have mercy”) featured frequently shifting harmony and an atmosphere of penitence. The rich harmonies had the flavor of late French Romanticism (Albert Roussel and even Lili Boulanger came to mind). Catherine Weinfeld-Zell’s plangent oboe frequently became essentially another vocal part, echoing the sighing figures of the chorus. Much of the third movement (“Eternal rest grant unto all, and let light shine upon all”) showcased the solo quartet, and Weinfeld-Zell spun long-breathed melodies over the restless strings. The final section placed the energetic quartet alongside the sustained accompaniment of the larger chorus. Complex harmonies (“Forgive the souls of all the faithful departed . . .”) alternated with jagged progressions in bare octaves (“. . . from all the chains of their sins”). For this listener, the loveliest moment was the first delivery of the final bit of text “. . . and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light”, a capella and robed in luscious harmony.
Ill health plagued musical phenomenon Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) virtually all of her cruelly short yet precocious and prolific life, nevertheless she became the first female composer to win the Prix de Rome. Her older sister, Nadia, acknowledging Lili’s superior compositional talent, herself gave up composing music to become perhaps the most prestigious teacher of musical composition of the 20th century. Lili Boulanger wrote Psalm 130 in 1917, in the depths of World War I, ostensibly as a memorial to her father who had died in 1900 but surely also to mourn the staggering number of war dead and to plead for peace. She scored it for a sizable orchestra and chorus with soloists; Cappella Clausura used a considerably reduced ensemble in an edition by LeClair: 16 singers in place of the customary 100+ with oboe, harp, organ, strings, and percussion, omitting the woodwinds and brass in the original score. The reduced forces nonetheless created a remarkable effect: the reverberant sanctuary undoubtedly enhanced the weighty solemnity that is the essence of the work, but ultimately credit must go to LeClair’s re-orchestration for retaining the score’s characteristic tenebrous colors and somberness. The lengthy orchestral prelude, beginning literally in the depths, skillfully set up the portentous pianissimo first choral entry. In frequent bare octaves and fifths as well as complex harmonies, and the singers’ unfailingly accurate intonation was a blessing. No feeling of routine ritual existed here. The rising apprehension of “May your ears be attentive to the sound of my prayer”; the intense supplication of the multiple addresses “Yahweh, Adonai”; the increasing urgency of “If you take heed of our sins, who can stand?” which culminated in a dramatic orchestral interlude: all had a powerful effect. Alto Lisa Hadley movingly sang the solo reiteration of “If you take heed . . . ,” and injected a note of hope with “But mercy is in you, and thus we revere you.” With “It is he who will deliver Israel from all her iniquities,” the chorus and orchestra built to the greatest climax on “Ah! Yahweh Adonai.” (Boulanger’s use of the Hebrew names must have raised some of her fellow Roman Catholics’ eyebrows!) The coda trailed off with repetitions of the title text, finishing on bare fifths in the instruments, neither major nor minor. This perhaps symbolized the composer’s uncertainty as to how the Great War would end as she did not live to see its conclusion. If the reduced orchestration left out some orchestral colors, the performers’ skill and expressivity went a long way in compensation. The text may have been occasionally difficult to follow in this work as well (Boulanger was fond of skipping back to revisit quite a few passages of important text), but the palpable emotional commitment of all the musicians made for a visceral and memorable experience.
2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
Thank you Geoffrey, for this lovely affirmation of the worth of Lili’s music, as well as mine and Elena’s. You’re so right, the Church of the Redeemer space is quite wet, and not meant for flying string figures, much less for the orchestration – even reduced – of Boulanger. We did try to fit the acoustic, but of course the main obstacle to your hearing any consonants was the masks the singers had to wear.
The performance at Emmanuel the next day was radically different; so much more clarity despite our masks.
Would that we could perform this again in a time of not-COVID!
Very best to you, and thank you for coming.
Comment by Amelia LeClair — May 20, 2022 at 11:34 am
LeClair is a dedicated conductor. She gives her all and the singers respond in kind
Comment by Ruth Nemzoff — May 20, 2022 at 6:32 pm
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