CONCERT REVIEW MIT Chamber Chorus Prepares for Harbison’s Seventieth

The Challenge of Performing Williams, Poulenc and Schütz

MIT Chamber Chorus

William Cutter, Conductor

Kresge Auditorium

April 10, 2009

There’s no getting around Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of O magnum mysterium text for me, if it isn’t for Francis Poulenc’s setting of the same text. But maybe that’s an asset when it comes to listening to Harbison.

To be sure: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and (among many other things) Institute Professor John Harbison is turning seventy this year, and MIT is not forgetting his birthday.

All for the best. MIT’s Chamber Chorus, under the direction of William Cutter, performed an evening of works by Harbison, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc and Schütz on Friday, April 10.

It was a challenging program, as Harbison’s music, particularly, is not easy to perform. Take his setting of the Advent text O magnum mysterium — perhaps it’s unfair to say that the piece is somehow written in a neo-Renaissance vein, but for a text so indelibly maculated in the choral tradition by Victoria’s sixteenth century setting, it’s impossible not to get around the perhaps subtle nod to the Spanish composer in the opening counterpoint of the piece. And then there’s the grand blossom that suddenly shakes the piece into Les Six and fin de siècle Paris, Poulenc writing at the heels of Satie. This is unfair, and I should apologize: I shouldn’t molest Mr. Harbison’s distinctly American sensibilities with Frenchified extravagance, but this is part of what makes the work so incredibly difficult. Were it simply Victoria or simply Poulenc, that would be enough — but synthesizing both in a single piece is not only a nightmare, it’s genius.

Or Umbrian Landscape with Saint, performed with an all-star chamber accompaniment (among the many renowned musicians that evening, Peggy Pearson, oboe, Marcus Thompson, viola, Jean Rife, horn, David Russell, cello, to name a few) required what can only be described as death-defying acrobatics in musicianship. The world premiere of the choral version of the work, it seemed unfair and superfluous for the chorus to perform the work with chamber orchestra. Here was a rich, Messiaen-esque piece, replete with birdsong and the rich, declamatory horns and vivid, almost early-Baroque, string section. But for the choir: text, at times, was awkwardly set to match the largely instrumental melodic line that the choir doubled, at times, choral lines were set unreasonably high or awkwardly. Certainly the choir added a vitality and direction that would have been sorely missed in the purely instrumental piece. But regardless of this role, it was hard not to see the choir as a mere after-thought to a work written for chamber orchestra.

Friday evening’s concert must have been as exciting to perform as it was to hear. The concert began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Choral Flourish (Psalm XXXII) and Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise sandwiching Harbison’s short setting of O magnum mysterium. The historical intelligence needed to perform these pieces is nothing short of astounding: Vaughan Williams, an early twentieth-century British composer, firmly informs his work in the tonal world of the Gregorian chant — Poulenc too, taking a page from other early twentieth-century French composers.

The choir performed the Vaughan Williams work with a palpitating vitality: melodic lines in Vaughan Williams’s counterpoint were clean and stentorian, as the composer no doubt wanted them to be, and the choir benefitted from a well-grounded bass section that supported the other voices. Poulenc’s work, scored for all mens’ chorus, seemed a little lackluster, but it’s unclear that this was at all the choir’s fault. Poulenc’s voluptuous line fell dead in the somewhat muted space of Kresge Hall.

Ectopia seemed to be the fault again in the final set of pieces performed on Friday evening, four works from Heinrich Schütz’s 1625 Cantiones Sacrae (I. O bone, o dulcis, o benigne Jesus, SWV 53, II. Et ne despicias humiliter te petentem, SWV 54, XIII. Heu, mihi Domine, SWV 65, XVII. Spes mea, Christe Deus, SWV 69). Schütz’s pieces are remarkably versatile in their composition and difficult in their structure, running a gamut between nuanced counterpoint to fairly heavy-handed choral fanfare. It was, no doubt, surprising to hear the choir tackle such intensely developed works as an ensemble with seeming dexterity and ease. However, Schütz’s works, as with Poulenc’s earlier in the evening, were written for (and thrive in) the vaulted ceilings and resonant chambers of chapels and cathedrals. It is a great task to translate that type of sonic arena into the space of Kresge Auditorium.

An interesting and thoughtfully programmed evening, the Chamber Chorus continues the choral season on April 24th, performing Harbison’s Umbrian Landscape with Saint in honor of the composer’s 70th birthday, and on May 8th with MITSO under the leadership of Adam Boyles, performing Stravinsky’s Chorale Variations onVon Himmel hoch.” William Cutter leads a community sing on April 16 from 5–6 p.m. in Lobby 10 and conducts the MIT Concert Choir in Beethoven’s Mass in C Minor and Haydn’s Te Deum for the Empress Maria Theresa on May 3. More information for both the Chamber Choir and Concert Choir performances can be found at and