Cape Code Times: Chorale, quartet make beautiful music together

Cape Cod Times
August 10, 2011
by Keith Powers, Contributing Writer

CHATHAM – In an unusual mix of sacred and secular, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival continued its run Sunday afternoon at First Congregational Church of Chatham. The Cypress String Quartet joined forces with the Chatham Chorale, directed by Joseph Marchio, in works by Purcell, Dvorak, Randall Thompson and Schubert.

Proving that chamber music simply means "music performed in a room," the concert offered a Mass, an a cappella work, a major string quartet and an old-fashioned British anthem. Marchio and his chorale formed the backbone of this presentation, supporting three soloists in Purcell's setting of "Rejoice in the Lord Alway,"singing a cappella in Thompson's WWII–era "Alleluia," and joining Cypress, soloists and additional instruments for Schubert's Mass in G major.

The chorale sang beautifully in all its arrangements. Purcell’s "Rejoice," widely known as the "Bell Anthem" for its chromatic accompaniment, which sounds like church bells, featured soloists Catherine Bihler (alto), Benjamin Robinson (tenor) and Jon Murelle (baritone). Its unique character comes from Purcell's use of the three forces – soloists, chorus and instruments – almost as a trio, each with equal standing. At one point the chorus sings "again," the soloists mimic "again," and the quartet mimes the melody line – a triumvirate of praise.

Cypress plied its stock-in-trade with an attentive reading of Dvorak's "American" quartet. Written during the composer's famous stay in this country, the musical material for the work comes from Dvorak's impressions of America, especially Native American and black vernacular songs. But the folk idioms and sacred music of his Central European roots never left him either, and show up here as well.

Enumerating its influences says little about the genius of Dvorak; that lies in the weaving together. A phrase may recall something borrowed, but how it follows what precedes it, and turns into something unexpected, is what makes it great.

Cypress was at its best in the slow (second) movement. Accenting the upward turns of melody at the end of most phrases, Cypress created a syncopated feeling, making the music rock gently. The movement can have almost unbearable intensity; here it seemed to relax a little. The other three movements – all longer, more freely lyrical – were explored with the kind of abandon that one would guess Dvorak intended.

Cypress – in particular first violinist Cecily Ward and violist Ethan Filner – played with command and cohesion. With so many beautiful lines throughout, whoever has the melody can easily take charge. Cypress worked hard at presenting the work with no stars, just team players. It worked.

Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" premiered at Tanglewood in 1940, written while the events in Europe, darkly descending into war, weighed on the composer. Needless to say, it's stately, introspective, and oddly in opposition to the celebratory nature of the one-word text – which adds to its intrigue, juxtaposing a believer's celebration with a citizen's anguish.

Schubert's Mass in G major shows his vocal inventiveness in a new context – chorus and singers, rather than art-song soloists. Schubert experimented with the form – many composers did – trying to create a Mass that was not an overwhelming, concert-long experience celebrating or mourning something momentous, but an intimate one, like this gathering, with the focus on the music.

With three soloists – Robinson and Murelle were joined by soprano Joan Kirchner – organist Donald Enos, Cypress and the chorale, Marcio had all the forces onstage. Nearly three-dozen players in the cozy space proved a problem for the balance, with the soloists especially being upstaged at times.

But Marchio kept it together, and the Mass had some striking moments. The credo has unusual tension: a martial accompaniment in the lower strings, with some sounds suggesting dissonance, creates a curious, almost modern effect. A duet between soprano (archly rendered by Kirchner) and viola that begins the Benedictus develops into a dynamic interplay, pitting the trio of soloists in a blended role against the quartet.

The ensemble, rather that the individual, remains the focus throughout this Mass, and Marchio attentively kept his musicians together, allowing the picturesque moments of the score to come through. After an enthusiastic audience response, a brief encore by the chorale – Mozart's "Ave verum corpus" – wrapped up the program. The festival continues through Aug. 19 at various locations.

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