Boston Cecilia offers up a rich and varied holiday feast

December 3, 2022 at 12:23 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Michael Barrett conducted Boston Cecilia Friday night at Church of the Advent.

Given all that was going on in Boston on Friday—a presidential visit, the close of the three-day residency of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the regular busyness of the season— it’s a minor miracle that the start of the Boston Cecilia’s “Evensong” at Church of the Advent was only delayed by about ten minutes. Even then, the wait for the ensemble’s varied program was worth it.

While referencing the familiar Anglican choral rite, this weekend’s concert broadened out to include music from various Christian traditions as well as Judaism. Though none of the selections (with the possible exception of Benjamin Britten’s “Jubilate Deo in E-flat”) are exactly repertoire staples, they largely tied in, one way or another, to the holiday season. Tucked among them were some real gems.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Beati quorum via integra est” was one. A short, shapely setting of the first verse of Psalm 119, it’s a solid example of the composer’s late-Victorian sensibilities. On Friday, Cecilia conductor Michael Barrett delivered the piece with fluent purpose, illuminating the discreet tonal shifts around its middle with perfect security.

The chorus also made the most of R. Nathaniel Dett’s “Son of Mary.” A captivating meditation on a text by Henry Hart Milman, Dett’s music draws equally on the black Spiritual tradition and Protestant hymnody, with a dose of 18th-century counterpoint thrown in for good measure. Last night’s performance shifted easily between those poles but without losing sight of the score’s fundamentally prayerful attitude.

Likewise appealing was a lean, dancing rendition of Raffaella Aleotti’s “Angelus ad pastores ait,” sung by a quintet drawn from the larger ensemble.

The evening’s single largest offering was Trevor Weston’s “Magnificat and Nunc dimittis.” Both of its movements are broadly meditative in character and given to moments of vivid text painting: the former’s phrase, “He hath shewed strength,” for instance, is illustrated with vigorous choral and organ figurations.

Yet the “Magnificat,” at least, is frustratingly episodic. To be sure, this text doesn’t necessarily suffer from letting its seams show (see Bach’s arrangement of the same). But, especially in such a short adaptation, the start-stop style quickly wears out its welcome.

Perhaps that issue can be overcome in certain performances. Friday’s, while at times energetic and warmly reflective at the beginning of the “Nunc dimittis,” wasn’t one of them, marred as it was by moments of tentative projection and periodic imbalances between organ and voices.

Similar complications arose in Arvo Pärt’s “Cantate Domino.” Here, the score’s devilish mixed meters didn’t completely bedevil either the vocalists or organist Kevin Neel. But slight coordination issues emerged between both groups and the Cecilia’s intonation was at times suspect.

In a cappella fare, however, the choir tended to acquit themselves well. Max Reger’s surprisingly diatonic “Wir glauben an einen Gott” glowed winningly as did Joseph Rheinberger’s “Abendlied.” Igor Stravinsky’s “Otche nash” provided an austere contrast, its homorhythmic profile meshing remarkably well with excerpts from the 17th-century composer William Smith’s similarly straightforward “Preces and Responses.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Allen’s “Hodie scietis” got the evening off to a lilting start and Daniel Read’s shaped-note hymn “Sherburne” brought it to a rollicking conclusion. In between came Salamone Rossi’s Schütz-like version of Psalm 124 and Herbert Fromm’s lively “Sabbath madrigal.”

Barrett and the Cecilia rendered those last four pieces with conspicuous brio: the imitative textures of the latter were particularly robust. That attention to the music’s spirit helped compensate, across the night, for some muddy diction in the concert’s non-English-language selections.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Parish, Brookline.

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