The Rose of Virtue - August 15, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
There’s very little choral activity in the summer, especially during August, and so Capella Antiqua’s second annual, all-men performance of “The Rose of Virtue” was very welcome for me and for the lucky people who shared this concert experience in the choir (behind the altar) of the magnificent Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. The concert was a celebration of “the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and so nearly all the music was a tribute to Mary.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
As with all the Capella Antiqua concerts I’ve attended, the performance was preceded by a talk by Artistic Director, Dr. Robert M. Johnson. And as always, he provided interesting background on the plan of the concert and on the history of each of the pieces to be performed, alerting us to subtleties in the music that we might otherwise overlook.
Unfortunately, I missed his comments about the first selection, “Ther is no rose of swych virtu,” and there is no explanatory text in the program except to identify its source as “Anonymous.” This was a rousing piece, though, in a call-and-response style, and from the “Alleluias” of the response, it seemed to me that this ensemble was capable of a somewhat more powerful sound than last year’s – a sound that sometimes seemed to overpower the space with the audience so close and the acoustics so favorable. The “call” part of this piece consisted of numerous duets which demonstrated the excellence of the individual voices.
The de Kerle mass, which Johnson had described as written for men’s voices and “very tuneful” and “charming” was every bit of that. For one thing, it was full of luscious harmonies, but it was in the counterpoint that I found such intense satisfaction. Essentially, each singer was an independent actor, responsible for delivering the expressiveness of his part. And of the ten men, each voice had a different timbre which helped one pick out and follow a given singer’s musical line. In doing so, I felt that I could really appreciate the artistry of each singer. But I would follow one line only to be distracted by the movement of another, all the while aware of a tableau of constant background activity. This is the great pleasure inherent in this kind of music. As I listened, I was experiencing a woven musical fabric that felt more like the work of God than of man.
Indeed, I noticed more than one person listening with their eyes closed. But for me, the experience was somehow enhanced by the swaying and bobbing of each man as he tried to put even more expression into his musical line, more than voice alone would permit. And when the voices joined in a powerful chord with a sharp cut-off, there was the delightful experience of hearing that chord reverberate in the cathedral. I understand that there is a sound delay of more than 3 seconds.
Another thing that impressed me about the singers was their coordination with one another. They sat reading the music from their scores (or iPads) resting on a music stand. But they were able to easily see each other over the top of the stand, and I thought I sensed them picking up each other’s body language. That was possible because of the brilliant idea of having them arranged in a circle. So often when people sing in a group, a person on one end of the formation can’t really hear those on the other end. There is no such problem when singers are in a circle, all essentially facing each other. Entrances and exits, tempo, synchronicity, pitch and blend are coordinated with minimal need for direction. I could imagine how much pleasure each man got, not only from the music itself, but from performing it in this way (and in this extraordinary space).
For the second half of the concert, Johnson turned over the directing duties to Rex Rallanka and Jonathan Hansen, both of whom had been responsible for the selection of the music they directed. And these pieces were of a distinctly different character from those of the first half of the concert. Johnson had explained de Ligniville’s “Salve Regina” as consisting of 8 different melodies in 8 movements of alternating chant (or homophony) and polyphony. I found them interesting, though not as transcendent as the de Kerle. They still provided pleasant listening, of course, and the final Amen fugue was simply thrilling.
Schubert’s “Salve Regina” was clearly romantic in style with more varied dynamic levels and harmonies that were nothing short of exquisite. It was preceded by Schubert’s setting of “Ave Maria” that is so familiar, and it was delightful to hear this music, so often delivered as a solo, performed with all the nuance of 4-part harmony. It came as quite a surprise to me to learn from Johnson’s pre-concert remarks that this well-known, well-loved piece was originally “Ellen’s Third Song” and written as part of a song cycle based on Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.” The “Ave Maria” was originally an interjection at the beginning of the piece, and it was only later that the music was sung to the prayer, Ave Maria.
In commenting on the final section of the concert, the four motets by Lemmens, Johnson explained that they enjoyed singing two of the Lemmens pieces so much last year that they decided to do it again, adding the two motets that aren’t specifically about Mary. To me this felt like music especially suited to men’s voices, full of powerful moments during which this 10-member ensemble sounded like one three times the size. In its varied musical moods, this section occasionally sounded to me like a series of opera choruses.
The whole concert was brimming with choral artistry, but in the final “O Sanctissima” I was aware of one well-crafted phrase after another. The singing was expressive to the point of acting, with much dynamic contrast and numerous opportunities to hear the cathedral’s wonderful echo.
During his introductory remarks, Johnson confessed that he and the other singers enjoy performing music that is rarely performed. Good for them, because they have introduced us to music eminently worth hearing. With that music, the artistry of the performers, and the excellences of the venue, one word sums up this concert: glorious.