Boston’s LGBTQ+/allied classical chorus Coro Allegro observed the centenary of Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) and 30 years of the artistic directorship of David Hodgkins last Sunday at Sanders Theater in a concert that featured The White Raven, a work Pinkham composed for this chorus; an affecting recent arrangement by Diane White-Clayton of the spiritual “In Bright Mansions;” and Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times aka the “Nelson Mass”). As is its wont, Coro mixed contemporary music with topical themes and standard repertoire.
Coro Allegro commissioned Pinkham in 1996 to celebrate its fifth anniversary; he drew his text mostly from the lengthy religious poem Jubilate Agno by the neurodivergent English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771). This poem is most familiar to choral music aficionados from Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, though the two composers selected entirely different texts from the poem. As an openly gay man, Pinkham felt Smart’s poetry paralleled the nonconformity of being gay in a straight world; his setting includes stark contrast in the very first line: the high drama of “For I have seen the White Raven . . .” gives way to the subdued self-reflection of “ . . . and am myself, a greater curiosity” and the restrained resonance of offstage trumpets. Jaunty rhythms and a playful mood characterized the next section which dealt with manifestations of water. The choral singing displayed considerable control amid the volatile dynamics. In the third part, concerned with air and sound, the chorus stated “the AIR is contaminated by curses and evil language” but soprano soloist Dana Varga answered reassuringly that “AIR is purified by prayer.” When Smart later speaks of “the beauty of prayer”, the chorus indeed made ravishing sounds. Section IV, “Fishes,” comprised a catalogue of apostles and saints, each rejoicing with a different form of marine life, in especially vivid imagery. In this fast, rhythmic music the chorus alternated with Varga who sang quasi-recitatives and a striking melisma on “joyous” (describing “the Porpus”). The final line offered soothing music—a soprano descant over choral polyphony—on the words “it is good to be at peace.” The rejoicing idea carried into the final section whose text, though not from Jubilate Agno, is by Christopher Smart: his poetic translation of Psalm 150. Pinkham used a mix of dissonant and consonant harmonies in this paean that urges the use of musical instruments to praise God: trumpet, lute, cittern, timbrel, organ, cymbals, and the voices of “all things that have breath.” Hodgkins and Coro Allegro indeed made a joyful noise to the Lord.
Coro Allegro last summer premiered the second work with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, directed by Christopher Wilkins, on the Esplanade—though Sunday we heard a newly reorchestrated version. In creating her arrangement of the spiritual Many Mansions, Diane White-Clayton (b. 1964) took inspiration from Roland Carter’s iconic version (“In Bright Mansions”) but consciously avoided “re-arranging” it. Though she commenced work on it in 2019, it took on a more visceral significance after the traumatic events of 2020, above all, the COVID pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent social upheavals. The text alone is moving—“My child has gone to glory, my mother has gone to glory, I want to go there . . . Lord, I want to live up yonder in bright mansions above”—and White-Clayton expertly used relatively simple means to enhance its poignancy, including a string drone, vocalise, ethereal, glittering percussion, and interplay of solo and choral singing. Coro Allegro’s singing had emotional resonance as did mezzo soprano Clare McNamara’s, but most intensely moving of all were baritone Wayne Arthur’s solos. This lambent and cathartic arrangement achieved its purpose of “creating beauty out of sorrow.”
The Missa in angustiis, one of Haydn’s most esteemed and popular choral works, also emerged from a time of turmoil: the summer of 1798 when Napoleon’s forces had defeated Austria four consecutive times; the Mass acquired its better-known sobriquet “Nelson Mass” when the composer learned of Admiral Nelson’s decisive victory over Napoleon, quite possibly on the day of the work’s premiere. The opening Kyrie eleison, in stormy D minor, places considerable technical demands on orchestra, chorus, and above all, on the solo soprano. All the musicians performed impressively with driving rhythm and clean ensemble; Dana Varga sailed through her solos’ brilliant coloratura writing.
In a marked shift of mood, the Gloria opens in exuberant D major with imitative dialogue between soprano Dana Varga and the chorus, soon joined by baritone Wayne Arthur, tenor Omar Najmi, and mezzo Clare McNamara. Arthur and Najmi gave a stylish account of the tenor-bass duet though Arthur’s lowest notes (perhaps too low for a baritone to project) were swallowed up by the orchestra. McNamara contributed a handsome solo at Gratias agimus tibi (“We render thanks to you”). After a full cadence, key and mood shifted again to the more intimate Qui tollis peccata mundis, miserere nobis (“You who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”) in which Arthur’s heartfelt singing paid dividends. After a clever recapitulation of the Gloria’s opening music, with rhythms altered slightly to accommodate different text (Quoniam tu solus sanctus), Haydn closes the movement with an engaging fugue (in gloria Dei Patris) which the chorus and orchestra rendered with clarity and panache. The coda (Amen) again put the solo quartet on display, particularly Varga and McNamara whose revolving coloratura figurations were skillfully taken up by the choral sopranos and altos at the end.
The opening of Credo hearkened back to that of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass with constantly moving accompaniment under more sustained but polyphonic choral writing. Varga gave us a tender Et incarnatus est, an example followed by the chorus. The dramatic power of Crucifixus sounded forth in stark octaves, though the intended contrast of the gentle et sepultus est (“and he was buried”) sacrificed consonants unnecessarily. The brilliant Et resurrexit displayed immaculate ensemble, with brilliant string playing under choral chords.
An unusually large choral and orchestral crescendo and decrescendo on the first word of Sanctus and its repetition conveyed a feeling of awe. Coro Allegro dispatched Pleni sunt caeli gloria tua and Hosanna cleanly and efficiently but oddly understatedly compared to other similar passages. In the Benedictus the soft-loud alternation of the orchestra opening led to a similar smooth interaction of Varga—and ultimately the four soloists—and the chorus. Though the second Hosanna literally repeated the first, it provided more excitement and élan this time.
Agnus Dei opened reflectively with caressing strings. McNamara made a beguiling appeal to the Lamb of God, followed in kind by the other three soloists. The Dona nobis pacem included showy string writing and an energetic, bright choral fugato as well as a number of sudden dynamic contrasts—Haydn did enjoy his surprises. As always, the choral singing and orchestral playing featured crisp, clean attacks and releases, communicating an optimistic appeal for peace.