Under a new conductor, Boston Cecilia presents a typically eclectic holiday program

December 11, 2021 at 11:37 am

By Jonathan Blumuhofer

Michael Barrett led his first program as Boston Cecilia’s music director Friday night at the Church of the Advent.

Though the coronavirus pandemic upended Boston Cecilia’s last two seasons, it evidently hasn’t made a dent in the choir’s inviting, slightly quirky, holiday programming.

“Renaissance Reborn,” presented on Friday night at Church of the Advent, marked the belated first concert of new music director Michael Barrett. The program also picked up where former conductor George Case left off last year, smartly showcasing fare that’s sometimes familiar and sometimes not.

Friday’s concert was built around a musicological concept, namely the enduring influence of 15th-century Franco-Flemish polyphony on subsequent choral composition.

Barrett’s program defined this effect generously if not expansively: all but two of the night’s pieces hailed from the 20th or 21st centuries, but they all basically fell into the same diatonic camp. Still, there was still a good deal of variety among the selections.

Kevin Allen’s “Ave Maria,” for instance, was prefaced by the Medieval plainchant on which it is based. The musical connections between the two works are discreet—Allen’s score is punctuated by decidedly du jour voicings and harmonic turns—yet each work shares a similar sense of devotion and expressive immediacy. In Friday’s readings, both settings were naturally-shaped, well-blended, and clearly enunciated.

Such was also the case with the evening’s two adaptations of the Christmas carol “Es its ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

In Alban Berg’s hands, circa 1906, this hymn took on a distinctly Brahmsian hue: richly chromatic, filled with imitative gestures, and pensively unfolding into a radiant, C-major apotheosis.

Hugo Distler reworked Michael Praetorius’ familiar tune for his 1933 oratorio The Christmas Story. Cast essentially as a series of variations that illustrate its various strophes, his setting’s most striking moments come around the middle, especially the gently rocking third verse and the lively, fanfare-ish fourth.

On Friday, the Cecilia’s performances captured the richness of both versions while also securely navigating the musics’ treacherous chromatic turns.

Meanwhile, Rafaella Aleotti’s brief “Miserere mei Deus” and George Walker’s “Stars” offered strikingly unsettled moments.

In the former, this came at the end: the final cadence sounds something like an unanswered question. Concurrently, whenever Walker’s richly chromatic setting of Susan F. Keeney’s eponymous poem seems to find a resting point, it’s undercut by queasy, bluesy twists.

Barrett’s unaffected approach to the latter captured much of its latent uneasiness. In the Aleotti, the Cecilia’s warmth of tone and solid projection of the score’s “Miserere” motive compensated for a certain textural diffusion and blurriness of diction.

Perhaps the latter was partly due to the venue’s reverberant acoustic.

It seemed fitfully that way in four movements from Stephanie Martin’s Missa Chicagoensis. Written in 2005 on a commission from that city’s St. John Cantius Church, Martin’s score is firmly tonal and idiomatic, seeming to allude, at times, to the worlds of Howells and Parry (minus, however, the former’s melodic originality and the latter’s harmonic capriciousness).

Alas, there is nothing especially suggestive of Chicago in the work; more crucially, it’s also the type of piece you listen to and promptly forget – except for the “Agnus Dei,” whose pleading melodies arising out of vocal depths suggest a musico-dramatic sensibility that isn’t as grippingly evidenced elsewhere in the score.

Still, the Cecilia’s account of the Missa’s flowing, lyrical episodes (notably in the “Kyrie” and “Benedictus”) were robust and fluent. If the more rhythmic moments in the “Gloria” didn’t always gel, their general character did come across readily.

So, too, the spirit of Adolphus Hailstork’s Seven Songs from the Rubaiyat. Setting excerpts from Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam, the piece is, in Barrett’s words, a “celebration of the present.”

Friday’s performance captured many of its contrasts of mood and technique. The first movement’s widely spaced sonorities were sung with vigor and confidence. Likewise impressive were the second’s dynamic swells, the fourth’s contrapuntal textures, and the sixth’s balances between soloist Benjamin Perry and a hummed accompaniment.

Bolder dynamic contrasts might have imbued the final cadence with a greater tonal thrill, yet one still came away impressed with the Cecilia’s voicing of the finale’s pungent dissonances.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Parish in Brookline. bostoncecelia.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment