IN: Reviews

Liturgies of the Living and the Dead


Conductor Noah Horn

Among the hallowed trappings of Newbury Street’s Church of the Covenant, Zachary Wadsworth’s haunting Faces of the Past premiered vividly alongside Duruflé’s contemplative Requiem. The Cantata Singers showed masterful virtuosity and expressivity through the conducting of music director Noah Horn last Sunday in “Remembrances.”

Though the concert’s long-form pieces both dealt with memory, the opener, Unclouded Day, portended a bright future. Shawn Kirchner’s acapella choral work sets a gospel melody by traveling preacher Josiah K. Alwood; its melodies rang out joyfully in dense but lively eight-part counterpoint. Reaching an exciting chromatic climax, the tone concluded in hopeful warmth — a short and sweet opener.

Zachary Wadsworth intended his cantata Faces of the Past as a companion to the Duruflé Requiem. A professor at Williams College and composer of much vocal music, Wadsworth took inspiration from American poet Mercedes de Acosta’s 1919 anthology “Moods.” Seven texts from this book became the movements of Faces of the Past, portraying a winding journey of affects and temporal displacements. The composer spoke of his desire to create a “liturgy of the living.”

The first movement, Memory, began with a unison A across the ensemble, expanding into complex stained-glass harmonies in the vein of Messiaen — appropriate among the Church of the Covenant’s historic Tiffany windows and sanctuary lamp. “I am living tonight in a cloud of memory,” de Acosta’s words proclaimed, living in these enigmatic, ambiguous chords. A soft, delicate solo by principal trumpet Mary-Lynne Bohn transitioned to the second movement, Faith. Cast in more tonal pitch-sets, a melismatic fugue gradually arose, threads of voices twining like vines. The deep organ pedals brought the music to an intense climax, with the chorus in unison among dark harmonies. Playful string and harp figures ushered in Time, an introverted movement in triple meter recalling previous motives. A violin solo recalled the opening before leading to the first full silence between movements.

Despair began with an organ solo, joined by falling rhythmic figures in the strings. Jennifer Webb’s mezzo-soprano tones resounded wonderfully in the church acoustic. In Storm, she portrayed the dehumanizing mania and despair of the text poignantly, supported by the dire tones of the choir. The section moved on into rage and agony, brought in by infernal trumpet fanfares. A Dies Irae-like energy pervaded among the sound of the brass, Webb’s pained laments combined with the choir’s anger in a tempestuous climax.

The music fell away from this peak into Revelation, gingerly descending into a warm D major. Strings floated in thirds above the organ bass, along with the harp and choir, singing of newfound faith. A tentatively hopeful organ solo transitioned to Dream. Basses, then altos, then all voices converged in a lush, loving consonance. A final call and response occurred between Webb and another member of the choir: “You ask, ‘What are you feeling?’” Within a deeply profound, sustained thirteenth chord, upon the lowest tones of the basses and organ: “I answer: ‘Peace.’”

What a gorgeous paean to the joys and sorrows of life and living as we experience it. Wadsworth’s composition traced a compelling arc from remembrance to anguish to rediscovered hope. Vastly colorful harmonies bloomed within a wide variety of instrumental and choral timbres, unafraid to be darkly bitter, vulnerable without being overly effusive. Webb’s mezzo-soprano solos were very effective, finding great expressive range and affective poignance. Faces of the Past left a heartfelt imprint upon my own memory.

Duruflé wrote his Requiem in 1947, in the wake of the second World War. The composer incorporated several Gregorian chants into a meditative, reflective setting of the Latin Requiem Mass. The Introit began with flowing melodies in the strings and choir, like rivers of time and memory encircling our ears. The four sections of the choir each exhibited a strong presence in the complex texture of the Kyrie’s imitative counterpoint. Voices surged to a broad climax before falling back to quietude, with a suspension in the organ resolving tenderly. A grave Domine Jesu Christe ensued, beginning in the organ and lower strings before growing into exultant fanfares. Gnarled, unknowable, yet ecstatic harmonies resounded, alternating with sections of repose. Baritone James Liu occupied the spotlight here. His strong enunciation and clear timbre worked well in the space; he could have produced more dynamic variations in presence and tone, but his reverence and sobriety suited the setting.

Composer Zachary Wadsworth

Slow melodies over organ triplets began the Sanctus. This grew to a jubilant climax, enlivened by the trumpets and timpani, before falling back down again. A trio of mezzo-soprano Lauren Guthridge, organist Jonathan Wessler, and principal cellist Lynn Nowels performed the Pie Jenu. Pleading, pure, Guthridge’s voice glided above the organ, in conversation with the gentle responses of Nowels’s cello melodies. The Agnus Dei played out in a warm C major. Fluid, with an internal nature, the choir led our ears to sweet cadences.

The Lux aeterna featured alternating passages between the measured tones of Wessler’s organ and a subdued, murmured chorus. Voices sang through static pitches over changing chords. In the Libera me, the music grew slowly but surely in a solemn procession: the basses, followed by strings, organ, tenors, alto, and finally sopranos, growing into the fearful, trembling climax of the Dies irae. Moments of peace broke through fiery roars, which though intense felt a bit oddly muted. Finally, delicate, gossamer soprano strains brought in the In Paradisum. Rich sonorities streamed forth from the choir over distant bass tones, with violins ascending in stepwise figures. Filaments of sound fell to repose, calling the eternal rest of the liturgy upon our eyes and our loved ones.

 Having been unfamiliar with Duruflé’s Requiem, I found the Cantata Singers’ rendition to be a revelatory experience. The Requiem and Faces of the Past made a beautiful pair. The ensemble impressed with excellent musicianship, executing the complex harmonies and contrapuntal passages adroitly. In the acapella piece the pitch fell slightly, but this was naturally not a problem in the selections accompanied by orchestra. They demonstrated a wide range of expression, from turbulent rage to utmost peace.

Music Director Noah Horn led the ensemble with natural, flowing movements which carried real strength when needed. Within this fluidity, his precise and measured gestures achieved tight coordination, especially in the tempo changes. The choir and orchestra balanced very well, and Jonathan Wessler’s organ playing showed particular sensitivity. The combined artistry of the orchestra and choir, highlighted by the individual performances of specific instrumentalists and soloists, bathed the audience in all kinds of lights and shadows — from the deepest grief to the highest rapture.

Even a week after the concert, I still recall these shades of sound; thier sharp impressions in my mind persist in the smiles of remembrance. Amidst the world’s chaos, the Cantata Singers offered us a loving, flourishing celebration of the living and the dead.

Julian Gau is a Boston-based freelancer and writer with a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.

Comments Off on Liturgies of the Living and the Dead