Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chorus Pro Musica goes to Chichester

Chorus Pro Musica at a previous performance.

I'm quite late with an appreciation of Chorus Pro Musica, and their "Poets and Psalms" program at Old South Church two (!) weekends ago.

I left the program thrilled, frankly, after encountering - in a row - three of the great choral works of the twentieth century: Charles Ives' Psalm 90, Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (two of these, btw - the Britten and the Bernstein - were commissioned by the same vicar, Walter Hussey, who therefore has his own niche in the cathedral of choral music). There was also a light opener to the program, Night, Sleep and the Stars, by Daniel Gawthrop, from a text by Walt Whitman, which was lovely in its way, but paled next to its fellows in performance.

Taken together these amounted to some very heavy lifting for Chorus Pro Musica, which I suppose is an "amateur" chorus - if by amateur you mean motivated by love, not lucre, as the original Latin tells us.  Their music director, Betsy Burleigh, is obviously a lady of talent and ambition, with a career that spans several chorales and several American cities (word has it, alas, she's moving on soon), and she drew from her assembled forces and soloists (bass David Godkin did particularly well) clear, vibrant tone and reliably secure intonation, even in the tricky passages of the Ives and Bernstein (alas, one sweet voice got a little lost in an exposed passage, but found a way home again).

Like a lot of large, good choruses, however, Chorus Pro Musica grew a little fuzzy when it came to diction (okay, some of this text was in Hebrew) and more importantly the complicated polyrhythms demanded by Ives and Bernstein, which here sometimes lacked a clean, syncopated edge.

But at what point does "good enough" become "great" despite its shortcomings?  Because Chorus Pro Musica often passed that bar, wherever it is.  And the sad fact is that there is no "professional" chorus dedicated to this repertoire - which contains some of the greatest music of the twentieth century.  For some reason choruses aren't "cool," I suppose, so there's no general clamor for this legacy - an attitude which I wish would change (I mean it happened for cupcakes, didn't it, so why not chorales?).

And to be honest you simply cannot discount the experience of hearing a complex statement on faith like Ives's Psalm 90 in an actual church, particularly one as spectacular as Old South.  Legend has it this is the voice of Moses himself, which Ives honors with a musical statement shaped into stern, muscular metaphors - a deep "C," for instance, sounds throughout the piece from the organ (skillfully played by Jacob Street) as a reminder of God's continual presence, and at times, to conjure the many confusing facets of our relationship to the divine, the composer splits his chorus up into as many as 22 separate voices.  Psalm 90 closes with one of Ives' greatest conceits: church bells ring against the dying sound of the chorus, but they're dissonant - a poignant reminder of the flaws of the faithful.

In contrast, Benjamin Britten limns the line between confidence and madness in Rejoice in the Lamb, which is set to a remarkable, and disturbing, text by one Christopher Smart, who wrote it from within the walls of an eighteenth century asylum.  Thus it's no surprise the piece swings from ecstasy ("Hallelujah . . . from the heavenly harp in sweetness and magnifical and mighty!") to crackpot whimsy ("For I will consider my cat Jeoffry . . . for he knows that God is his Saviour,") to piercing cries for salvation from the madhouse ("For I am under the same accusation as my Savior - for they said, he is beside himself . . . and the watchman smites me with his staff!").  Britten loved this text (you can feel it in his attentive settings) - he even asked that parts be read at his memorial service - and it's easy to see why; rarely have essential questions of sanity and faith been probed so naively, yet so powerfully.

Finally there was Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, which has a claim to being the most gorgeous thing this great composer ever wrote.  Perhaps tellingly, its loveliest passages were drawn from melodies he had composed, but discarded, for West Side Story (or the unrealized musical The Skin of Our Teeth); and the text of course is a mosaic of psalms set in juxtaposition - sometimes simplistic juxtaposition, to be honest, but the music always carries us over that bump (below is a rendition of the incredibly beautiful Psalm 23/Psalm 2 "second movement," featuring countertenor Lawrence Zazzo).  The work is famously ravishing throughout, and closes with a hushed fade on the word "unity," as the talented accompanying musicians (not only Street on organ, but Judy Saiki Couture on harp and Craig McNutt on percussion) resolved to a peaceful major chord.  It made a haunting, memorable close to what had been quite a moving concert.  You can hear Chorus Pro Musica next in "A Victorian Christmas," again at Old South Church on December 21.

The most gorgeous thing Bernstein ever wrote?  Possibly.

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