CONCERT REVIEW Changing perceptions, changing the rules

Musica Sacra performs sacred choral music of the modern era

Musica Sacra

Mary Beekman, conductor

First Church Congregational, Harvard Square

March 20, 2010

For as beautifully and thoughtfully as Saturday evening’s performance was conceived, programmed and performed, the third concert of Musica Sacra’s 50th anniversary season also managed to present significant challenges to both audience and performer. In a program entitled The Spirit is Still Speaking: Sacred Choral Music of the Modern Era, Musica Sacra performed five works; wo were world premieres, and all were written within the last forty years.

Saturday evening’s program began with the premiere of Felicia Sandler’s Laus Trinitati. Founded on the chant of the twelfth century nun and Christian mystic Hildegaard von Bingen, Sandler’s work exploited the resonant space of Harvard Square’s voluminous First Church Congregational to its fullest. This is difficult music to perform; Sandler’s piece revels in precision of tuning and deeply satisfying chordal progressions, often requiring the choir to perform with straight tone for long periods throughout the work. The result is sonically awesome: The vast sweep of supple melodic lines blossom out from the narrow crevices of immaculate tuning. But the music presents its own challenges for the audience as well: Although consistently gratifying throughout its entire duration, Sandler’s work is imbued with a sense of crystalline stasis — a breathless beauty that releases its tension only at the piece’s terminus.

Although certainly very different music, much can be said about Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s Euntes Ibant et Flebant (Op. 32). Górecki’s music again demanded much the same from the choir. Painted with rich tone clusters and a surprisingly modern view of homophony, it seemed at home in Musica Sacra’s performance. The tuning was immaculate in a work that builds rich harmonic shifts off a seemingly static harmonic base. Although the work may be taxing to perform, the attention to detail was remarkable: gratifying swells in the choir painted a marmoreal piece to realize the humanistic work Górecki must have envisaged.

In light of these two works, Osnat Netzer’s work came as a breath of fresh air. Whereas Sandler’s and Górecki’s work reveled in the static, Netzer’s broke from the alabaster into something more akin to folk song. Whereas Sandler’s and Górecki’s works provided ample surprises in unexpected harmonic shifts homophonic writing, Netzer’s music was marked with vast swathes of melodies carousing that followed more traditional rules of counterpoint. Although more traditional voice-leading in the choral parts made Netzer’s work one of the most accessible of the evening, Netzer’s work bore significantly more emotional gravitas. Setting texts from Yehuda Amichai, the Psalms and the Jewish liturgy, Netzer’s unique use of more traditional techniques, mixed with the choir’s excellent shaping of the melodic lines conjured a pointed sense of deep nostalgia and yearning.

The first half of Saturday seemed to be in preparation for the second half. Musica Sacra’s program continued with the premiere of Jan Sandström’s Sutta Nipata (Bring Heaven to Earth) after intermission. Although written in the same vein of static homophony as Górecki’s and Sandler’s works, Sandström’s piece maintained a more complex presence, culminating in a work that was certainly more physically and technically taxing than its predecessors. But a nuanced performance seemed to realize intricacies of Sandström’s work: Sandström’s harmonic realization painted an almost dystopic scene — a meditation on love and universal peace, Sandström’s setting fragmented each line to a quantum of pairs of words or syllables; unique settings of climactic phrases created the sense less of a surging mass but more of a great wail. Taken as a whole, Sandström’s realization singularly portrays an internalized heavenly peace as cold an marmoreal--somehow divorced from human understanding and interpretation. Certainly worth more than a single hearing, it is a hope that Sandström’s work will not join the ever-growing pile of works that see their only performance at their premiere.

The evening concluded with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Sacred and Profane (Op. 91). Composed a year before his death, it is striking how familiar Britten’s erstwhile brazen settings have grown to the modern ear, that the passage of time can ameliorate even the most avant-garde. A setting of eight medieval English texts, Britten’s work is poised for performance during early spring and Lent, ranging from topics as vastly varied as a prayer to the Virgin Mary, to a Middle English translation of the Latin O vos omnes, to ballads of spring approaching on the moors. Although much closer to character to Netzer’s work in the first half of the program, Britten’s work is technically demanding, both tonally and rhythmically. While passages in later movements of Britten’s work showed signs of exhaustion, Musica Sacra was particularly impressive in its ability to shift modes from the tonally precious works of Sandler, Górecki and Sandström to the thornier works of Britten’s songs. Solid lines of the first movement, St. Godric’s Hymn, gave way to the intricate chirping of I mon waxe wod and Lenten is come. Janet Ross, soloist in the fifth movement, Yif ic of luve can, was of particular note, maintaining a presence that blossomed seemingly out of nowhere, while negotiating balance with the choir. Particularly impressive was the final movement of the work, A Death, a setting whose non-obvious setting lends way to conclusion reminiscent of scat singing in vocal jazz. Musica Sacra maintained the suppleness of the line while adhering strictly to the death-defying rhythmic hijinks of Britten’s whim.

Now in completing its thirtieth year, it’s this type of programming that is educational both to audience member and musician alike — a challenging program to perform, certainly, conductor Mary Beekman’s musical choices also pushed the limits of the audience’s imagination and conception of what contemporary choral music is and can be. Musica Sacra’s final concert, a collection of conductor Mary Beekman’s favorite pieces from the ensemble’s 50 year history, will be performed on May 22 at 8 p.m. at First Church Congregational in Harvard Square.