Steeped in the Classicals: Sacred Voices and That New Concert Hall Smell

03/23/2009 12:00 PM |

Steeped in the Classicals is NewYork’s only classical music column written by Henry Stewart.

Lincoln Center’s recently redesigned, renovated, refurbished and reopened Alice Tully Hall still has that new concert hall smell, which is something like fresh wood, glaze and felt. Get there soon, before the uptown elite smells it all up. Typically, the venue hosts chamber music performances, and its acoustics have been tailor-fit to resonate with small sounds. It was an ideal spot to see and hear the Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales, sister choirs under Charles Bruffy’s shared direction, which performed together there last Monday with a program of 19th and 20th centuries vocal music — mostly selections from their recent CD releases.

The program’s highlight was its opening piece, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s
"Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae" (1997), because it did the most to
stretch the boundaries of traditional choral music. Written to
commemorate the 1994 shipwreck of the Estonia, in which 910
people perished traveling from the boat’s namesake country to
Stockholm, the piece inventively used human voices to evoke water: it
opened with sharp exhales that sounded like crashing surf; later, its
mellifluous harmonies conjured lapping waves; and the piece started and
ended with the chorus whispering, which brought to mind both ripples
and the final mutters of the drowning. It was a poignant, haunting
piece; Mr. Mäntyjärvi was in the audience — all the way from Finland! —
and though he received hearty applause he deserved more.

The Chorales followed the piece with something more traditional: Josef
Rheinberger’s "Three Sacred Songs". Known primarily for his works for
organ, that instrument most readily associated with the divine,
Rheinberger here was (yuk yuk) writing for different sets of pipes; the
songs sounded like something straight out of the church, if your church
had two world-class choirs. (And if you heathens dear
readers went to church.) That is, it was almost a religious experience,
fulfilling one of music’s earliest roles: by working its way through
melodic uncertainty into the catharsis of major-key resolution, I
became convinced, if only momentarily, of the existence of God, a deity
so loving he’d allow notes to be arranged with such harmonic

The subsequent piece, selections from Alexander Grechaninov’s "Passion
Week" (ca. 1912) possessed a similarly conventional beauty as
Rheinberger’s work, but it raised a question: how much consecutive
choral music can the ordinary listener take before he gets bored —
before it really starts to feel like church? A bit more than I
suspected, actually, as soon as I stopped taking notes and closed my
eyes. Choral music asks that the listener surrender to it; to
appreciate it, particularly in large quantities, it helps to crawl
inside the spaces between the octaval harmonies, to nestle in
psychically. Others, of course, disagree: my row had thinned out a bit
after intermission.

Those quitters would have been advised to stick around:
post-intermission’s "Mass for Double Choir," by Frank Martin, was
second only to the Mäntyjärvi piece. (Hear
the concluding "Agnes Deo".) Composed a bit later than the two
preceding works, ca. 1926, it boasted more complexity: there were more
dynamic and rhythmic shifts, more complicated chords and more harmonic
build-ups. Sung to "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" and The Nicene Creed (and
other texts), it used its libretto in unexpected ways: when invoking
the Lord ("heavenly King, God the Father almighty") the chorus sounded
afraid rather than celebratory, building up to something like suppliant
awe. On particular words — like "crucifi!" — the voices exploded.

"I am so happy you liked that," music director Bruffy said when the applause died down. (He had a comical habit of refusing to signal the end of the piece for many seconds after the chorales had stopped producing sound; before intermission, it provoked a woman in the audience to release a devious giggle, one I assume the rest of us were successfully stifling.) The chorales offered an encore in honor of St. Patrick’s Day: the women sang an Irish folk song, "’P’ Stands for Paddy, I Suppose," while the men performed what sounded like a pulsatingly tribal Gaelic fight song. The performances were competent, but smacked a bit of blue-hair populism: something you’d expect from a PBS pledge drive. The two groups proved capable of producing a stunning tapestry of tones, a thick cloud of sacred voices, reverberating through the hall. Like a priest with a banjo, they were above such crassly folksy Irishisms.