CONCERT REVIEW Through the Ages

A Course in Musical History

Oriana Consort

Walter Chapin, conductor

First Lutheran Church of Boston, Boston, MA

April 3, 2009

One could learn a lot performing with the Oriana Consort. Certainly, one could learn a lot attending one of their concerts. Conductor Walter Chapin’s copious program notes exuded the author’s obvious excitement for both music and ensemble, and his interest was well transmitted — reading Chapin’s notes provided the distinct impression of attending a music history course; an engrossing excursion through the past with bits of history being performed.

Friday’s concert was a thorough tour of choral music, both instrumental and a cappella, of the past four hundred years, and, performance aside, the programming itself was expert. Old was balanced with new in the initial pairing of Peter Philips’s Surgens Jesus Dominus (1612) with Arvo Pärt’s Which was the Son of… (2000) and The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997). It was remarkable how easily the ensemble switched between the two time periods.

Philips’s work, sometimes considered part of the dour English madrigal tradition, was anything but: a vivid opening piece, the Oriana Consort, portrayed Philips’s work as refreshingly fluid and graceful (Oriana’s renaissance sound was particularly resonant in the domed ceiling of the First Lutheran Church of Boston) and almost immediately moved to music written nearly four hundred years later.

Pärt’s works are surprisingly difficult, both in intonation (unaccompanied choral works always demand particular attention to tuning and blend) and pitch (twentieth-century composers are particularly known for their merciless settings of seemingly atonal harmonies). A surprisingly accessible work, Pärt’s Which was the Son of… brought to life Luke’s reckoning of Christ’s genealogy.

It seems the most improbable text for choral settings — an endless list of names with the occasional familiar name from previous Bible stories. And it’s to Pärt’s credit that the work is as successful as it is — the repetition becomes part of the macroscopic in the work as overarching episodes narrate the history of the Bible from the creation to Christ (ending with a chilling open fifth as the choir announces Adam “[…]which was the son of God.”). A particularly astute attention to detail by Oriana propelled the work throughout each of these episodes. The choir also performed Pärt’s lush setting of the anointment of Christ, as related in the book of Matthew, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997), easily negotiating the erratic shifts in character and form.

Oriana showcased its period instrument ensemble, performing two Baroque works on Friday evening, Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) and Michel-Richard Delalande’s De profundis. Both are impressive works — Bach’s cantata is a favorite at Easter, and Delalande’s De profundis, written for the death of Louis XV’s mother, require enormous amounts of ensemble work. Oriana was certainly prepared: the solo and ensemble work by both instrumentalists and choir members demonstrated the incredible talent present in the volunteer ensemble.

And in Boston, the center of the period music movement, perhaps it’s inevitable that a small independent ensemble must perform period music. Despite its successes, this portion seemed unnecessary, perhaps even stodgy. After the instrumental works, the choir moved on to perform a cappella choral works for Passover (if that sort of word-pairing works for the synagogue) by Yehezkel Braun. It was striking to hear the contrast to the instrumental works, not only because of the unfamiliar tonal systems Braun used in his compositions, but because there seemed to be an exuberance present in the unaccompanied works that was absent in the accompanied works. A freedom and flexibility surfaced that brought the concert back to life.

The same can be said about Ticheli’s There Will Be Rest, a moving setting of Sarah Teasdale’s introspective poem. With impeccable blend and solid intonation, the choir seemed at home with the music, comfortable with both the text and the setting.

Oriana Consort’s performance on Friday evening was interesting on multiple levels: historically and culturally, the program spanned a vast repertoire of genres and periods, and all this was augmented beautifully by Mr. Chapin’s astute observations. Although the final concert of their season, the ensemble returns with another program in Winter 2009.