How good to be back in a church. More so, given today’s continuous culture shifts in music, it was remarkable to behold “A Musical Banquet” of Vaughn Williams, Mendelssohn-Hensel, Josquin des Prez among others. Vaccinated and masked, Boston Cecilia joined forces with Convivium Musicum presenting its banquet at First Church Congregational, Cambridge. In the larger scope of things “a wide-ranging program of ancient and modern a cappella music” it was not. The program, instead, drew finely on mostly European expression over the ages, fairly daring these days in certain quarters.
Or maybe not. Going with European expression and moving toward inclusiveness, Barrett included not only Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, but also Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father hailed from Sierra Leone; Vicente Lusitano possibly of African descent, maybe holds rank as first published black composer. British composer Joby Talbot took to a Latin voice.
Two finely tuned ensembles “with different personnel, repertoires, and sounds” made fine impressions that would naturally prove both illuminating and diverting from the 50 devoted choristers.
Boston’s ardent ensembles also honored Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570 – 1630) through his Shir hamma’a lot ‘Ashrei kol yere ‘adona, (Psalm 128), one of his many efforts to bring the ars perfecta style into the synagogue.
Polish composer Mikolaj Zieleński’s polychoral work stirred with acoustical control of space. Portuguese Vicente Lusitano, a theorist as well, zeroed in on chromaticism, the upward moving notes pleading “Free me, Lord from eternal death…” While Zieleński’s less adventurous tonal writing should have been effectively transmitted by the combined choirs, it was the Lusitano that struck vocal gold with the 15-member Convivium Musicum. A softer dynamic coupled with a narrower tessitura allowed a virtually unfettered transmission in the cavernous space.
Breakthrough moments in the 75-minute program directed by Michael Barrett, came in a melodic caress, a harmonic splendor, or rhythmic rap. His poised conducting evinced clarity, especially in the voice pairing style in Josquin’s motet, Ave Maria… virgo serena. More generally, perhaps, singing through masks at First Church Congregational’s space often kept words from shining. Unfortunately, sopranos too often overreached, lower voices shied from expected resonance.
Boston Cecilia and Convivium Musicum commissioned and premiered Land-Locked for double chorus by Gregory W. Brown. His polychoral work sang in time-honored vocal expression on an 1861 text by Celia Thaxter, a well-known writer of the time and, for a time, a resident of Watertown. Brown introduced his new work observing that Thaxter’s words “The river runneth softly to the sea” might very well have referred to the Charles and her longing for her windswept Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire/Maine coast where she long gardened.
The fourth movement of Joby Talbot’s From Path of Miracles: Santiago wrapped up the concert. Barrett and singers created an attractive ambience for the meditative piece, recounting the centuries-old pilgrimage to the Cathedral at Santiago, the purported resting place of St. James.
If only that aural veil pervading the sanctuary could have been lifted for what surely appeared to be a multilingual and vocal celebration of expression and inclusion.