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Musica Sacra: Double Takes


Mary Beekman (Susan Wilson photo)

Musica Sacra’s “One Text, Two Perspectives,” the ensemble’s third in which paired composers have essayed identical texts, showed how well thoughtful planning can cohere. For an attentive Saturday night audience of about 120 at the 800-seat First Church, Cambridge, the beautiful sounds of 21 auditioned singers, practiced to the point of exquisite purity of tone (notwithstanding the use of masks in consequence of two Covid cases during rehearsals) and remarkable control, outshone the well-considered programmatic conceit. Mary Beekman has directed the 63-year-old ensemble for 43 years.

For Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five,” from “The Tempest,” the most familiar text, Charles Wood’s concise setting, a century or more old, included a seven-note carillon in D major, evocative of the style of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was his student; Matthew Harris’s (b. 1956) more recent setting was an agreeable G minor. Another familiar text, “The Lamb” by Blake, was represented by the Englishman John Tavener, replete with smooth and plain nondominant sevenths, and by the Black American Adolphus Hailstork, whose more extended setting included some poignantly modulating harmony, in which singers obliged with fine pianissimo.

Two American Romantics adapted James Agee’s “Sure on this shining night.” Samuel Barber, well known for embracing another Agee text, has been a favorite in concerts since the 1940s, and Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943), better known as a choral composer, might in some ways be considered his successor in tonal harmony. Both settings, in triple meter, included a piano accompaniment. Director Beekman, in an informal explanation, asked for a show of preference, and Lauridsen’s won hands down. The richness of Lauridsen’s subtly original style is hard to pin down; part of it, I think, derives from his inclusion of tonic pedal points in mixed subdominant-dominant sonorities, but always at the top or in the middle of the texture.

Two different texts evoked “summer night.” “Sommarnatten,” a Swedish text in a setting by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, sounded sweetly tonal, yet an excess of counterpoint confused the intonation; this was redeemed by the cross-related D major and minor together, repeated several times near the end, and resulting in a dangerous but lovely sound. “Nocturne,” a text by Jim Curtis, followed in a setting again by Adolphus Hailstork. This was amiable enough, but focused too much on A minor, with the preponderant burden of the text in the treble register, where the room’s capacious acoustics fogged the enunciation.

“Set me as a seal” comes from the Song of Songs, Chapter 8, vv. 6-7. William Walton’s setting was unaccompanied, triumphal, and conventional. I have stronger memories of the E minor version by Daniel Pinkham, from his Wedding Cantata, which I first heard when he conducted it on Boston Common in 1957; three months later he became my freshman harmony teacher in Music 51, launching my own career with Walter Piston’s text.

An expanded Ave Maria text bracketed Musica Sacra’s evening; Josquin des Prez’s pellucid setting à 4 came first, and at the end we heard a heavier and longer version à 6 by Ludwig Senfl, composed in admiration of Josquin’s. This and Lauridsen’s “Sure on this shining night” got the concert’s strongest ovations.

I came away with a strong impression of the importance of a capella polyphonic singing in the history of Christian worship, Catholic in the 15th century and Anglican in the 20th, allowing for what has been called the “familiar style” of 19th-century New England hymns in which accompaniments are either absent or don’t matter much. All of these, sacred and secular, whether plain homophony or elaborate vocal counterpoint, likely work best with small choirs projecting utmost clarity of pitch and balanced smoothness. We certainly witnessed those qualities last night. Our thanks to Mary Beekman, accompanist Terry Halco, the 21 fine vocalists, and for the handout essays’ clarity of setting expectations.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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