Back Bay Chorale closes season with Durufle and contemporary works
Scott Allen Jarrett and the Back Bay Chorale closed their season Saturday night at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge with a generous offering of 20th- and 21st-century choral works.
The main attractions of the program were two pieces by Maurice Duruflé, the Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégorian and his mesmerizing Requiem.
For all of the popularity of the latter, Duruflé’s other music remains largely unknown. Today, he is a composer whose works are read about more than experienced in live performances.
That’s perhaps due to the organist-composer’s limited output and artistic temperament: Duruflé’ was a perfectionist and highly critical of his own works, even editing them after publication.
The Requiem of 1947 is his best-known opus and, like other of his pieces, involves the literal reworking of Gregorian chants to the point that some critics have referred to the piece as an arrangement rather than a composition.
But to call it such is to miss the intricacies of Duruflé’s style, which, much like the folksong-laced music of Vaughan Williams, evolves from the source material to create new and sensuous sounds. The Requiem, scored for organ and choir, is a moving setting of the mass for the dead that retains the reverence of the chant tunes while capturing some of the textures and colors of musical impressionism.
Key to Duruflé’s style is the musical line, which can flow in single phrases or through silky sheets of overlapping melody. Saturday night’s performance glistened under Jarrett’s direction as he conducted with sensitivity and an ear to each passing phrase.
The hundred-plus member chorus sang with commitment, with the music’s fullest sections sounding with resplendent tone. The more exposed parts of the score, though, were uneven, the lines at times falling flat due to unfocused attacks and imprecise intonation.
But those moments were rare. The melodies of the Sanctus were bright, the soft phrases of the “Agnus Dei” glowed like embers, and the lines of the final “In paradisum” floated towards heaven in somber tones.
Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias sang the “Pie Jesu” with a dark and affecting voice that lent a sense of longing to the music. Cellist Sassan Haghighi answered with amber-rich phrases. At the organ, Justin T. Blackwell supplied a supple accompaniment, his lines cresting and falling like waves.
The other Duruflé work of the evening, Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégorian, was equally affecting. The “Ubi caritas” unfolded in low, darkly hued phrases while the cat-and-mouse counterpoint of “Tota pulchra es” gave the music a sprightly character. The darting lines of “Tu es Petrus” came to rest on rich harmonies. And the thick inner voices of the “Tantum ergo” infused the tightly wound polyphonic lines with light, ear-tingling dissonances.
Through it all, Back Bay Chorale conducting fellow Mariah Wilson led a silky performance. The singers responded to her gentle gestures with clarity and energy.
The first half of the program was dedicated to a number of shorter choral works.
For Jeremiah Ingalls’ Northfield and Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays: Bright Hour Delayed, the singers of the Back Bay Chorale were staged antiphonally, with two choirs placed on either side of the church and two more split between the front and back of the altar space. Underlining the polyphonic style of these works, the voices came from all directions, forming chords in midair before evaporating into silence.
The setup, though, was not without its problems. Saint Paul’s reverberant acoustical space enables lush sonorities to form. But in this case, the church was poor for diction, and the texts of these pieces were unfortunately lost in the swirl of sound.
Those problems were remedied in Tarik O’Regan’s We Remember Them, a work of stirring beauty where chords disperse into thin pitches that hang in space. The choir, now situated center stage, layered harmonies upon the soft, stately melodies sung by soloist Becca Kornet.
Jake Runestad’s I will lift my eyes is simpler in style, solidly scored, and built from luminous harmonies. Conductor Jarrett guided a supple reading while drawing clear phrases from the chorus.
Morten Lauridsen’s Ubi caritas et amor was also beautifully rendered. His writing makes colorful use of a style that today has become a cliché of the genre, namely the frequent use thick chords infused with suspended seconds and fourths.
The Back Bay Chorale gave the work a sensitive performance. Jarrett shaped the sound with crescendos, sudden fortes, and subtle phrases that lifted the soft concluding Amen skyward.
The Back Bay Chorale will join the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in excerpts from Italian opera 7 p.m. August 5 at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. backbaychorale.org
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