Review of Cambridge Chorale Holiday Concert
Reviewer: Anne H. Matthews
program from this concert
The Cambridge Chorale's annual Holiday Concert always offers
listeners a chance to hear music that is a departure from traditional
Christmas programming. A chorus of about thirty women singers,
the Chorale performs twice a year at the First Parish Church in
Arlington. Their director, Kenneth Seitz, makes a point of choosing
music written expressly for higher voices, and has a flair for
creating cohesive and entertaining programs that are both accessible
and challenging for the audience. Sunday’s program featured an
interesting variety of composers spanning almost 500 years, from
Palestrina to Peter Maxwell Davies and Mr. Seitz himself as well.
The program began with Palestrina’s motet Domine fili unigenite,
performed with a delicacy appropriate to this gentle polyphony.
Individual lines were nicely brought out while conveying a sense
of the whole, and the final chord was beautifully in tune. Next
we heard the beloved Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure,
in an arrangement for treble voices. It’s unusual for Mr. Seitz
to choose such arrangements, but it was easy to see why in this
case, as the all-treble version seemed to highlight the lush harmonies
and graceful lines even better than the more familiar mixed-voice
arrangement. The Chorale brought out both the intensity and sweetness
of this work, and the final unison ending was steady and peaceful
as it died away, confirming the word "fulfillment" in the text.
The Prophecy by contemporary composer Emma Lou Diemer provided
a sharp contrast to the previous pieces. This very challenging
work is an imaginative depiction of texts from Isaiah, with wide-ranging
tessitura and brilliant use of dissonance to convey sometimes
terrifying musical images. The final line, "for the earth shall
be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the
sea" was particularly effective, with descending lines in the
various voices like drops of falling water, and alternating high
voices against low insistent alto lines. The Chorale’s excellent
diction and tight rhythmical control made this very ambitious
piece a success.
The first half concluded with Benjamin Britten’s seldom-performed Missa brevis in D, and here the Chorale really shone. While
some adult performers might be tempted to force a boy soprano
sound for this music, there was none of that here, and it worked
beautifully. The sound was rich and full and there was plenty
of drama, especially at the jubilant climaxes in the Gloria at
the phrases "Domine fili unigenite" and "Tu solus altissimus".
The final Agnus Dei movement was intense and haunting, suggesting
a multitude of voices heard in darkness, beseeching yet resigned.
The second half of the program, which featured various carol
settings and began with The Golden Carol by Mr. Seitz. The expansive
lines and rich low harmonies provided an effective change of mood.
Next, four carols by Peter Maxwell Davies provided another interesting
sample of 20th-century British harmonies, somewhat similar to
the Britten, but overall more theatrical and perhaps more immediately
Noel by Jules Massenet was a good foil for the Britten
and Davies; while the harmonies seemed conventional by contrast,
the piece conveyed both the mystery of the virgin birth and the
peacefulness of the scene at midnight very effectively, with the
refrain "Il est minuit" repeating like a distant chime.
The program concluded with the cheerful and upbeat Alleluia,
Amen by Mr. Seitz. Wendy Covell provided fine accompaniments
throughout, on both piano and organ.