Strong Vores premiere highlights Chorus pro Musica’s wide-ranging program

March 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jamie Kirsch led Chorus Pro Musica Saturday night at Sanders Theater. Photo: Santa Mila

Jamie Kirsch led Chorus Pro Musica Saturday night at the Sanders Theatre. Photo: Santa Mila

Chorus pro Musica, under the direction of Jamie Kirsch, provided energetic performances of a wide range of choral works Saturday night at the Sanders Theatre. 

The spotlight was on the premiere of a new piece by Andy Vores. Spencer the Rover, scored for chorus and brass ensemble, has as its heart an English folk song that tells of a man who forsakes his family for a life on the road. Loneliness, though, compels him to return home as he realizes that his family was all he truly desired.  

Vores’ score is attractive and a strong example that even now music based on folk material can yield impressive results. Its strength is in its use of narrative. Spanning over half an hour in length, the music seems to inhabit two worlds. One revolves around the folksong itself, performed by the choir in tuneful and rich ensemble sound; the other involves the brass band, which performs dissonant lines and brash harmonies to probe the inner mind of the story’s protagonist.

Most memorable are the sections that occur mid piece, where Vores splits the text into fragments that echo about the chorus accompanied by finger snaps and whistles. This collage of sound seems to capture the fleeting thoughts of a man on the run. 

Vores’ score is all the more remarkable when one considers its backstory. In his program note, the composer stated that he was working on the piece as his 87-year -old father was suffering from dementia. To Vores, the phrases “He had been much reducéd/ and caused great confusion,” from the folk song, took on a heartbreaking reality.

After singer and guitarist Hugh Macdonald sang a wispy and sensitive rendition of the original folk tune, Jamie Kirsch led Chorus pro Musica in a dynamic performance of Vores’ score.

The choir sings with a bright vocal sound that can at times come off top heavy, the result of having more women than men in the ensemble. But the singers made up for that with smooth blend and diction that was clean and precise.

The ensemble’s fine sound was on full display in the concert’s opener, Mendelssohn’s Richte mich, Gott. Kirsch led with circular gestures to shape each line into sturdy columns of sound, the music capturing to good effect the text’s prayer of thanksgiving.

Two works featured women and men’s voice separately.

Abbie Betinis’s Behind the Caravan: Song of Hâfez is an arresting setting of four poems by a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic. The music, scored for sopranos and altos, cello, hand drums, and oud is a sumptuous blend of Middle Eastern and Western styles.

The outer of the five movements open with statements that flow between speech and singing as the lines gradually swell into passages of stirring rhythm. The central movement stems from waves of swirling patterns that recall Steve Reich’s Tehillim

The second and fourth movements are especially beautiful. “Suffer no grief,” the title of the second, grows from strands of melody that are woven together into lightly shimmering dissonances. Cellist Jacques Lee Wood answered with a mournful line while Peter Pulsifer supplied a steady pulse on the hand drum. The fourth movement, entitled “boatpeople,” involved open fifths that created a halo effect of harmonics that hovered over the stage. Introducing this magical movement was Ghassan Sawalhi, who performed a rhapsodic strand of melody on the oud.

Through it all, Kirsch led a colorful and evocative performance.

Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Bernard for men’s voices is one of the composer’s most popular choral works. Its warm, English folk style notwithstanding, the work tells a dark story of adultery and murder. 

The men of Chorus pro Musica gave a richly varied and sensitive performance, singing with energy for the music’s darting lines and conveying the stark power of Britten’s bristly harmonic writing in the outer sections. Pianist Cole Swanson lent a cushion of support. 

The choral music of Arvo Pärt is both moving and haunting. His Nunc dimittis, heard Saturday, involves long, glowing sheets of sound. 

Pärt’s sparse writing at the opening of this piece is a challenge for singers, and Chorus pro Musica’s performance was here marred by some tentative attacks. But as the piece progressed, the singers grew more confident. The “quia viderunt” was particularly affecting, with soprano and alto voices freezing on close seconds while soprano Laura Althoff floated a flickering line overhead.

The concert closed with two short pieces.

James Taylor’s Lonesome Road, in an attractive arrangement by Don Grolnick, sounded with sweet nostalgia and soulful air, thanks especially to solo baritone Ethan Lobenstine.

And Sydney Guillaume’s Twa Tanbou, a Haitian Creole piece that tells of three drums in conversation with one another, sparkled with rhythm to bring the concert to a satisfying conclusion. 

Chorus pro Musica will join the Boston Philharmonic in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem 3 p.m. April 24 at Symphony Hall.

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