A poignant farewell with American song from Boston Cecilia

May 1, 2017 at 11:44 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Nicholas White led his final Boston Cecilia concert Sunday in Brookline.

Two partnerships came to an end Sunday afternoon at Brookline’s All Saints Parish where Boston Cecilia performed its final concert of the season. Conductor Nicholas White, who took over after former director Donald Teeters stepped down in 2013, is leaving the group to focus on his work as a composer and his position as chair of the arts at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Barbara Bruns also gave her final performance with Cecilia as she is stepping down from her position as accompanist and assistant conductor after thirty years of service.

Sunday’s program of American works of the 20th and 21st centuries provided an apt swan song for both musicians.

The choir, numbering about sixty singers, sounded as good as it has all season. Full sections had a radiant glow and fine balance. The quiet parts of pieces, though, revealed a few weaknesses.

In Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, a setting of the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, the singers delivered lines of power and intensity. The work, though, is difficult, with many exposed lines and frequent changes in meter offering a challenge for most ensembles. The singers capably handled these passages, though the soft sections resulted in phrases that were fitfully unclear. The running contrapuntal lines didn’t always coalesce into a web of sound, and the chords on the word “light” failed to shine. The highlight was mezzo-soprano Amy Mitchell, who sang the solo role with vibrancy.

Two works by Randall Thompson fared better and featured the singers in sounds of soft delicacy. His celebrated Alleluia, which opened the concert, is a setting of slow, searching musicality. The choir sounded with gorgeous blend in its soft phrases. The flowing arcs of Thompson’s Fare Well, too, were sung with a tender lyricism.

Samuel Barber may be America’s best composer of vocal music. His Reincarnations, heard Sunday, beams with bright colors. The choir, led by Barbara Bruns, handled the composer’s clamorous dissonances with power and deft control. Here, the contrapuntal lines came of with intensity. Bruns’ quick gestures drew singing of direction and momentum. The smooth phrases of the final work of the set, “The Coolin,” moved at a graceful lilt.

Barber’s Hermit Songs featured Mitchell as soloist. The three short pieces that make up this work are tuneful and picturesque. Piano chords in “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” conjured images of church bells. Pointillisms in the second, “In Praises of God,” added a touch of sarcasm. The third, “St. Ida’s Vision,” flowed in phrases of dark resonance. Mitchell sang these songs with rich, dark tone that found a warm humanity. At the piano, Bruns played with an elegance to match Mitchell’s musicianship.

The most beautiful singing of the afternoon came in works by Stephen Paulus and Morten Lauridsen. The latter composer helped popularize the sound of contemporary choral music, where stacked harmonies reveal quivering dissonances that do not resolve in traditional ways. His Nocturnes, sung Sunday afternoon, evoked plush night scenes. “Sa Nuit d’Été” bristled with a mix of minor and major harmonies. Passages of “Soneto de la Noche” sounded with splendor. “Sure on this Shining Night,” a popular Lauridsen piece, was spun from lines of smooth silk. White, leading with waving gestures, conjured singing of smooth blend.

Stephen Paulus’ Two Pieces, composed in 2010, are similarly lyrical. “The Road Home” had the tunefulness of a spiritual. Mitchell, soloing here as well, floated her phrases in the third verse with conviction. “Little Elegy,” the first work of the set, sounded with sweet, poignant sorrow.

Warm applause for the singers brought an encore, a reprise of “Sure on this Shining Night.” The performance, White and Bruns’ last, brought tears to the eyes of a few of the singers in a touching farewell. 

Boston Cecilia’s first concert of the 2017-2018 will take place at 3 p.m. October 22 at All Saints Parish in Brookline. bostoncecilia.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A poignant farewell with American song from Boston Cecilia”

  1. Posted May 09, 2017 at 8:40 pm by Nicholas Deutsch

    Samuel Barber’s cycle “Hermit Songs” consists of 10 songs. The three mentioned in this review — with their correct titles — are: 1. At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; 3. St. Ita’s Vision; and 9. The Praises of God. Thank you. 🙂

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