Seraphim Singers find hope and solace in winter program

November 10, 2019 at 10:54 am

By Andrew J. Sammut

Directed by Jennifer Lester, the Seraphim Singers performed Saturday night at Eliot Church in Newton.

Frigid temperatures aptly arrived just in time for the Seraphim Singers’ season opener Saturday at Eliot Church of Newton.

Conductor Jennifer Lester led the 33-person chorus, and organist Heinrich Christensen in “Winter Is Coming,” a program of works centered on suffering, loss and cautious hope. Somber feelings and evocative choral textures connected the lengthy program, which spanned from the early Baroque through today. 

Under Lester’s direction, Seraphim Singers took a convincingly cool, at times stoic approach, yet one rooted in an impressive union of concept and sound.

Purcell’s well-known setting of Psalm 102, Hear My Prayer, O Lord, opened the night with the chorus split into two choirs on either side of the hall. Lester’s delicate drawing out of each section’s harmonic suspensions made for a tense plea. Johann Schein’s Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen followed, describing the realization that God might not be answering those prayers. In the call and response effects Bach’s predecessor at St. Thomas Church borrowed from Venetian contemporaries, sopranos dominated in a plaintive rather than overtly tumultuous effect.

Moving forward 300 years, frozen landscapes in the four short movements of Poulenc’s Un soir de neige (A Night of Snow) are a metaphor for the spiritual exhaustion in France after World War II. Lester’s flowing yet focused direction and the chorus’s repeated descending chromatic phrases captured the image of snow gently accumulating into a harsh enclosure. Poulenc’s atmospheric chords were given just enough room to breathe, as in the exclamation of “fire” ending the second movement or the tenor lines piping through the last movement’s signs of escape.  

Poulenc’s work places its text front and center while Polina Nazaykinskaya’s “A Winter Night” stretches poetry into musical abstraction. This is the first movement from the young Russian-born and New York-based composer’s Triptych, commissioned by Seraphim Singers in 2016. The text by American poet Sara Teasdale expresses sadness for the homeless on a cold night. Nazaykinskaya’s score alternates homophonic poetic statements with wordless swirls that slowly collapse into one another. Seraphim Singers sang with appropriate tonal and emotional rootlessness, all the more jarring as they segued immediately into a movement from Australian composer’s Paul Stanhope’s Exile Lamentations.

Stanhope’s 2009 “Lament” alternates and then combines English poetry by Palestinian Christian poet Tawfiq Sayigh with Latin text from the Book of Jeremiah. Another multilayered meditation on displacement by a contemporary composer, Stanhope’s piece and Seraphim Singers’ interpretation sounded comparatively lucid and understated. Soprano Rachael Luther and tenor Paul Keene combined into one distinct color floating out of the choir’s transparent blend. Austere contemplation marked this performance, briefly interrupted by dissonant close intervals and clear dread in the voices on the words “policemen followed me.”

The Con moto maestoso movement of Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A, Op. 65, No. 3, featured organist Christensen in the composer’s instrumental setting of the Lutheran hymn “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep affliction I cry out to you).” The spirited major-key introduction—coming through the 1,700 pipes of Eliot Church’s organ—was followed by a patient fugue that served as a fitting segue into the composer’s choral setting of the hymn. Demonstrating Mendelssohn’s well-known inspiration from Bach, the singers’ clear resigned blocks in the first and final chorale sections and solemn fugue held together through a similarly deliberate delivery. Their restraint added an aspect of guardedness to the speaker’s faith, as though hoping for but not expecting divine assistance.

Following intermission, American composer Frank Ferko’s “The Mother” from his 1999 Stabat Mater began with soprano Livia Racz’s sweet, laser-focused vocalise, soon twisting into agony as the chorus spoke for a mother both proud and mournful of the sons she lost fighting for Irish independence. Other than a few dynamic hairpins, Lester let the words and bittersweet melodic curves make heartbreaking impact.

By contrast, Irish composer (and Royal College of Music cofounder) Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1906 God and the Universe was the most emotionally and interpretively open performance of the night. Drastic shifts between rich middle register and ethereal upper ranges set to a tempo portraying wariness communicated fear of one’s mortality and corresponding assurance from the cosmos. A downright startling wall of voices in perfectly balanced forte accompanied the revelation of “Power” in the lyrics. The diminuendo and decelerando for “shadow” were poignant without seeming calculated.

Young composer Shruthi Rajasekar’s Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep is another reflection on the calm acceptance of death. American poet Mary Elizabeth Frye originally wrote the text to honor the passing of her friend’s mother, but the poem remained anonymous for decades. Rajasekar integrates Indian ragas into the Western choral techniques, and Seraphim Singers handled the sudden shifts between traditional and Indian harmony, consonance and dissonance, loneliness then solace, with ease that made the work come across as a sobering but ultimately uplifting. Contemporary American composer and organist Carson Cooman’s Appalachian song “Every Night When The Sun Goes Down,” another declaration of faith supplanting the fear of death, received an organ rendition by Christensen. His wistful touch and earthy bass lines complemented the previous two works.

The horrors of World War II brought the concert to a close, starting with three of Michael Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals from 1941. A lifelong pacifist, the English composer considered the themes of suffering and hope in these African American works to be a more universal message for wartime. Tippett added his own orchestrally-inspired choral writing, inspiring an especially thick, dark tone from Seraphim Singers on “Steal Away.” Tenor Samuel Grandaw sang the “trumpet” described in the lyrics while soprano Luther once again soared. In “Nobody Knows,” Tippett turns the chorus unto a murmuring stream, sung in an attractive whisper by the chorus. “Go Down Moses” featured dramatic contrapuntal outbursts against guest baritone Gray Leiper’s plainspoken but strong refrains.

Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen’s 2011 Even When He Is Silent ended the evening with the sincere, spacious sound of the chorus in an anonymous text found etched into the wall of a concentration camp. Frequent pauses in the musical line, minutely crafted by Lester, were impressively rendered yet the careful pacing never quelled the quiet energy of faith at the center of this music.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at First Church, Cambridge. seraphimsingers.org; 617-926-0126

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