Back Bay Chorale closes season with a rich program of Vaughan Williams

May 14, 2018 at 11:46 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted Seraphic Fire Wednesday night in Miami.

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted the Back Bay Chorale Sunday at the Sanders Theatre.

 Ralph Vaughan Williams lived through a time of unprecedented change. The Europe of his youth looked forward to the twentieth century as a time of discovery and prosperity. But by the 1930s, as the composer was well into middle age, his country had been torn apart by one war and was rapidly descending into another.

Two choral works capture Vaughan Williams’s sense of optimism in both those promising and difficult times. Toward the Unknown Region of 1905, based on a poem by Walt Whitman, looks hopefully into the future. But that hope is tested in his Dona Nobis Pacem of 1936. Also based on the poetry of Whitman, the cantata stands as Vaughan Williams’ inspiring call for peace.

In the hands of Scott Allen Jarrett and the Back Bay Chorale, which offered both works Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre, Vaughan Williams’ message seemed to speak with new vigor. Bold and beautifully sung, Toward the Unknown Region and Dona Nobis Pacem made for an uplifting end to the ensemble’s current season.

In addition to the Whitman poetry, Dona Nobis Pacem weaves together texts from the Bible as well as a political speech by John Bright. The titular phrase “Dona Nobis Pacem,” drawn from the Catholic Agnus Dei prayer, pervades the music, sounding with deep humility in the opening yet growing to a fervent cry as it unfolds.

The phrase requires a singer who possesses a radiant, yet delicate tone, and it would be hard to imagine a better advocate than soprano Christina Pier. Her rendition of the Agnus Dei brought moments of solace to the war-haunted score. Baritone Sumner Thompson proved an equal partner, delivering the “Angel of Death” with dark conviction. In the final movement, which tells of peace granted by God, Thompson’s voice swelled with warmth and humanity.

Scott Allen Jarrett displayed a fine sense of Vaughan Williams’ style. He crafted the composer’s lines into thick stacks of harmonies in the climactic points of the Dona Nobis Pacem. “Beat! Beat! Drums!” shook the hall with earthy power. “The Dirge for Two Veterans,” a funeral march for a father and son, had a Mahlerian grandeur. The Back Bay Chorale, strong in all sections, sang with faint glow in the reverential ending.

In the music’s vivid passages, the orchestra of played with the zeal of a military band. Trumpeters Mark Emery and Richard Watson brought martial thunder to “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as they rendered the bugle calls with gleaming tone and precision.

In Toward the Unknown Region, the singers explored all of Vaughan Williams’ sumptuous phrases, towering climaxes, and subtle shades of darkness. Jarrett led a sweeping performance that built each page of the score to a satisfying conclusion. 

Vaughan Williams was particularly fond of the sixteenth-century tune “Dives and Lazarus” and used it most famously in his English Folk Song Suite. In his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, a lush setting for string orchestra and harp heard Sunday afternoon, the tune is treated to a simple yet luminous set of variations. Its intricacies draw upon Tudor music, and the string voices, arranged in call-and-response patterns, weave into a silvery fabric of sound.

Under Jarrett’s guide, textures glowed and attacks were soft but not tentative. The dance-like triplets of the third Variant swayed, while the darting figures of the fourth bounded. The conductor, leading with broad sweeping gestures, conjured a spacious and supple reading. 

To open the concert, a small group of singers performed the song “Dives and Lazarus” Situated in the front of the stage and in the balcony, alto Rose Filipp, bass Joe Mancias, and sopranos Patricia Driscoll and Meredith Hall floated each verse with the grace of Renaissance choir. When the Back Bay Chorale entered in response, the tune unfolded into rich, four-part harmony for an affecting beginning to a concert aimed at consolation and tranquility.

The Back Bay Chorale will join the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem 7 p.m. August 1 at the DCR Memorial Hatch Shell.;

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