Celebrating more than 25 years as a women's chorale

     
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Review of Cambridge Chorale Holiday Concert 1998

Reviewer: Anne H. Matthews

View 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 accessible.

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.

 

 
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