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Trumpet and Voice Resounds with Crescendo

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Nov 10th, 2018

Crescendo chorale with conductor Christine Gevert

Christine Gevert’s Crescendo chorus and musicians performed a program entitled “The Sound of the Trumpet: Celebrating Life in England and New England” at Saint James Place in Great Barrington.

They opened with a Jubilate Deo by contemporary composer Scott Perkins. Based upon Psalm 100, this emphasized God’s gracious mercy. The choir sang with delicate modulation and grace.

 “A New England Requiem” by Scott Perkins is a new composition, premiered last year on April 25th at the Bethesda Lutheran Church in New Haven; it features liturgical texts paired with 19th century American poets: Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne of Massachusetts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Maine, and Lydia Sigourney of Connecticut. The 25-minute work, scored for choir, soprano soloist, organ, and chamber ensemble, provides a mediation on death.

In Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” the ironic gentility and civility of Death personified becomes a powerful image that hovers over the brief narration of Dickinson’s poem, which overshadowed the consoling sentimentality of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” and Hawthorne’s “Go to the Grave,” even though they was sung with eloquent pathos. The Latin vs. English structure and the sacred vs. secular pairing endowed the piece with impressive historical sweep of the passing centuries. Soprano Mavis Hsieh sweetly sang the Latin lyrics.

The Connecticut poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) is remembered chiefly for her poems on the death of her children, an all-too-common occurrence during her lifetime. While overlooked as a sentimental poet, some of her poetry contains authentic tragic pathos. “Death of an Infant” is one such poem, here paired liturgically with Agnus Dei, which I found to be inappropriate—what does an infant’s premature death have to do with the sins of the world?

The arrangement and singing of the Emily Dickinson poem provided the exciting highlight of the first half and the most memorable event of the evening. The choir sang this with subtle "shifting of gears" with intricate pacing that was a marvel to hear.

Sir John Tavener’s “Song for Athene” (1933) was an elegy for a young Greek actress killed in a cycling accident. The Hebrew Alleluia (“praise the Lord”) supplies the incongruous refrain with mellow resignation aptly articulated by the chorus. Some glancing lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet intermingle  with Greek Orthodox liturgy—the conceit being that the actress was a contemporary Ophelia slain by the advent of automobiles.

Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary of England, Z. 860 (recently played at Diana Spencer’s funeral) continued the maudlin motif. Although Purcell, that great genius of the middle Baroque period, died young (about 35 or 36), he earned the posthumous nickname as Brittan’s Orpheus. I attempted, in vain, to revisit Manfred Bukofzer’s cranky 1947 complaint about the annoying trumpet in Te Deum & Jubilate Deo, Z. 232; with virtuoso Chris Belluscio suavely playing on natural trumpet, this objection did not stand. (Perhaps Bukofzer had heard a show-off horn?) Hideki Yamaya on theorbo cast a welcome, atmospheric undercurrent to the melody, as Edson Scheid’s violin soared with liquid smoothness in the upper register.

The chief pleasure of Purcell’s Te Deum lay in the voices of five singers: Sopranos Catherin Hancock and Jennifer Tyo marvelously singing in sync; Nicholas Tamagna as a countertenor with subtle, declamatory variation; Stephen Hassmer as forceful, theatrical tenor; Andrew Padgett as powerful bass delivering that spine-shiver.

Since London is not around the corner, the performance of the Purcell was a rare treat offered by the energetic director Christine Gevert, who conducted a recent interview with TMI here. This program will be repeated at Trinity Church in Limerock, CT, tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm.