IN: Reviews

Undaunted Singers Delivered

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John Ehrlich 40 years ago

The Spectrum Singers offered a fond farewell to their founder and Music Director of 44 years, John Ehrlich. The program’s Saturday night’s milestone concert at First Church in Cambridge, “Time, Space, Peace, Music, God,” encompassed many of choral music’s recurrent themes while generating great expectations; the undaunted musicians delivered moving, skillful performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region and Serenade to Music, Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, and Charles Ives’s Psalm 90. While none is as large in scale as an oratorio, requiem, etc., all four make significant demands on individual and collective preparation and vocal stamina. We also enjoyed the added blessing of a pre-concert lecture by Steven Ledbetter which focused our attention on the writers and their texts as much as the musical influences on the three composers.

I admired the bold decision to open the concert with Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), a stern challenge for performers (and listeners!) despite being more tonal than not. One might say the intermittent ambiguity of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s poem is mirrored in Schoenberg’s vacillating commitment to tonality. Though originally intended to be sung unaccompanied, the work is often performed with chamber orchestra doubling the choral parts, as it was here. Ehrlich skillfully managed the balances between singers and instruments, possibly even improving over the typical a cappella balances in a few places, e.g., when Schoenberg asks for a near-impossible crescendo for singers in their lowest register. Even as the composer, working in 1907, begins to “feel the air from another planet”, he retains the trappings of Romanticism, including the nearly continuous crescendos/diminuendos and liberal rubato. I salute the assembled forces for knowing the music well and thus being able to follow closely the heightened expressivity of Ehrlich’s conducting. While Schoenberg may not place a high priority on text comprehensibility everywhere—the choral parts are most often highly independent of each other in word setting—he does allow important moments to register clearly, most tellingly in the verbal refrain, “Peace upon the earth”, that ends all four stanzas. Ehrlich and the chorus made a clear contrast between the first stanza’s serenity—the shepherds greeting Mary and the infant Jesus—and the second stanza’s military aggression—the “bloody deeds” of personified Conflict. With powerful accented chords the musicians enacted the dogged optimism of the third stanza “that the weak shall not forever fall as helpless victim.” The fourth stanza vividly depicted the development of a new kingdom “seeking peace upon the earth,” beginning with a steady, soft tread and growing inexorably in power to culminate in a “royal lineage . , . whose bright trumpets proclaim: Peace, O Peace upon the Earth!” Some years later, the composer, after World War I, averred that he now felt peace on earth was impossible and an illusion, but Ehrlich, the Spectrum Singers, and orchestra underlined the younger man’s idealism with their moving and powerful conclusion in triumphant D major.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region provided a fine example of the passion of the late-Victorian English for the poetry of Walt Whitman, which far exceeded the middling popularity the poet enjoyed with his fellow Americans (Steven Ledbetter had helpfully pointed this out). Vaughan Williams’s friend and fellow composer Gustav Holst characterized Whitman as “a new breed of mystic whose transcendentalism offered an antidote to encrusted Victorianism.” Vaughan Williams used the chamber orchestra in the prelude, interludes, and postlude to define the mood, introduce motifs, and make transitions of context (i.e., texture, mood, and tonality). Under Ehrlich’s assured guidance, chorus and orchestra took us on the evocative journey of Whitman’s poetry. The yearning instrumental chords that begin the piece—soon to be echoed by the chorus—contrasted effectively with the ongoing tiptoeing of the staccato bass line, together illustrating an adventuresome desire to break free of restraints and a hesitancy to venture into the unknown (“Darest thou now O soul, Walk out with me toward the unknown region, Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?”). The performers conveyed the fourth stanza’s growing confidence, however, when all “ties loosen” but time and space. A stirring series of repetitions (“Then, then, then”) opened the conclusive fifth stanza. Having meandered through much uncertain yet seductive chromaticism earlier, the chorus here joyfully proclaimed, “Then we burst forth, we float, In Time and Space.” As the poetry exulted in newfound freedom from earthly ties, the tempo and dynamic steadily increased until the music reached the grand climax—“O joy! O fruit of all!”—and then proceeded majestically to the blazing F major conclusion.

This year includes the 150th anniversaries of the births of Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg (additionally, Sunday marked the 70th of the death of Ives), and fittingly, Ehrlich programmed the finest choral works of each. Using an accompaniment of organ and four sets of tubular bells, Ives’s Psalm 90 (“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place”) followed a plan similar to Vaughan Williams’s, setting up unease and conflict in the first part and resolving them in the second. Special recognition goes to Heinrich Christensen for his skillful handling of the important, multi-faceted organ part; he made what is essentially a German Baroque organ sound reasonably close to a 19th-century American instrument as he sensitively accompanied the singers. Ehrlich and Spectrum were ever alert to Ives’s vivid word-painting, portraying, for example, the timelessness of “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past;” the gathering momentum of “Thou carriest them away as with a flood;” and the mounting anger in the outward-expanding tone clusters of “For all our days are passed away in thy wrath” followed by resignation as the clusters contract back to a unison in “we spend our years as a tale that is told.” The singers and organ also drew our attention to “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” with strange but moving chord progressions forming a musical arch. The tubular bell players also added atmosphere with gentle chiming during “O satisfy us early with thy mercy,” then later shocked us with a clanging sforzando on the word “evil.” Atypically for Ives, the final verse “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” bathed us in diatonic C major—aside from the not unpleasant foreign pitches softly intoned on the bells. The final Amen held listeners rapt with the singers’ beautifully controlled quadruple-piano chord. I suspect I was in a large majority discovering this piece for the first time; Ehrlich and his musicians made for outstanding tour guides.

For a conductor about to retire one could hardly find a more fitting swan song than Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. In 1938 the composer set much of Shakespeare’s exquisite passage discussing music in “The Merchant of Venice,” to pay tribute to the esteemed British conductor Sir Henry Wood at his Golden Jubilee. We heard the version for four solo singers, chorus, and orchestra. The orchestra’s lush, caressing sounds, particularly concertmaster Danielle Maddon’s beautiful violin solo,  bewitched the audience from the beginning, later enhanced by the warm choral entry “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!”. With bright tone solo tenor Ethan Bremner described “the floor of heaven . . . thick inlaid with patines of bright gold” and later soared to operatic amplitude “quiring to the young ey’d cherubins”; Ehrlich, chorus, and orchestra extended this climax through “immortal souls.” Trumpet fanfares brought in soprano soloist Sarah Yanovitch Vitale’s vigorous exhortation to wake the goddess Diana with a hymn and entice her with music, to which the chorus made a thrilling reply. Soon, however, solo bass-baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland emerged from the chorus (he is a Spectrum member but also a sought-after soloist well beyond Boston) to warn of the dangers of people who are immune to the charms of music. Cleveland excelled in perhaps the most demanding of the solos, being required to transition in consecutive phrases from baritone—“[the man who] is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils”—to the Stygian depths of basso profundo—“The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus.” Mezzo-soprano soloist Katherine Maysek eventually brought us smoothly back to the serenity of the Serenade’s opening, maintaining warm resonance even in her lowest register. Indeed, after repeating the music of the opening—now in a heavenly upper octave—Vaughan Williams also has the chorus bring back some of the text of the first stanza as well: “Soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.” The performance concluded with the utterly enchanting interplay of the chorus’s beautiful pianissimo and Vitale’s seraphic ascent to a soft, celestial high A (“of sweet harmony”).

After 44 years with The Spectrum Singers, John Ehrlich can surely look back on a huge number of performances with profound satisfaction, but “Time, Space, Peace, Music, God” must rank at or very near the top. As a fellow repertoire hound, I thank you, John, for your determination and skill at locating neglected gems of the choral literature and presenting them alongside beloved standards in such fine performances. I hope you’ll continue this pursuit—at the places and times of your own choosing.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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  1. What an eloquent and information review – thank you Mr. Wieting! I was there and can attest to what a very special evening it was, both musically and in the obvious love the participants and audience have for John Ehrlich’s achievement over 44 years of music making. The only thing I would add is to remark on Concertmaster Danielle Maddon’s sensitive and beautiful violin solos in the Serenade.

    Comment by Carol M — May 22, 2024 at 5:33 pm

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