Virginia Chorale Sings Frank Martin’s Double Choir Mass



Virginia Chorale: À la Française
Sacred Heart Church, October 11, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

In the reverberant acoustics of Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk October 11, the Virginia Chorale presented À La Française, a program of delightful music from the 16th to 20th centuries, from a variety of French-speaking countries.

They began with Margoton Va T’a L’iau (Margoton Went to the Well) a wry little dialogue by Francis Poulenc about a girl who went to fetch water, fell in the well, was pulled out by three handsome lads who expected from her what she had no intention of giving them. It was light and quick and charming.

Next came three 16th-century chansons from around the world. First up was Tant Que Vivray (While I live)” by Claude de Sermisy. In the text, by Clément Marot, the singers tell that as long as they live, they serve love, the powerful king, in words, deeds, song and dance—because love is so good! I recognized it with delight because I had to memorize it in my high school French class, with a slight variation, a long, long time ago and never forgot it.

Mille Regretz (A Thousand Regrets) by Nicolas Gombert was a sad song of lost love, with the Chorale’s voices weaving together and fading out. La, La, La, Je Ne L’Ose Dire (I Shouldn’t Tell/I’ll Tell You Anyway) was a light, quick song about a man with a flagrantly unfaithful wife. Small-town gossip hasn’t changed much in 500 years . . .

Three songs came from the 20th-century French-speaking world. Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge) boasted a text by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, from his collection Alcohol. Once again, love is lost, like the water of the Seine flowing under the bridge—with a nice dissonance underscoring the word “pain”—but the poet remains, as the chorale sings a long floating note.

A traditional folk song from the Auvergne was Le Baylère. The same melody—"Bailéro”—was arranged for soprano and orchestra by Joseph Canteloube. In this lovely arrangement by Goff Richards, the sopranos rise up out of the choral fabric to precise high notes before falling back seamlessly into the choral sound. Tasty stuff!

Haitian-born Sydney Guillaume, who now lives and composes in Los Angeles, wrote Twa Tanbou (Three Drums), whose Haitian Creole text by Louis Marie Celestin sings of a Sunday morning argument between three drums about whose sound was the most beautiful—but when they sang together, the sound was unforgettable. The tricky rhythms were joyful and lilting.

The iconic French singer Edith Piaf’s signature song was La Vie en Rose. Kathryn Kelly was the soloist, who brought a lovely, full, rich voice to the familiar song. The attractive arrangement by Norbert Ortt wasn’t overblown and had a wonderful “la-la” coda.

Frank Martin was a Swiss composer who lived for many years in the Netherlands. He wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir in 1922-24—and then put it away in a desk drawer for 40 years, until around 1962, because it was a matter between himself and God. Its five movements are from the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mass. The Kyrie began with women’s voices, echoing and overlapping; the second trope was very strong, and the third had rhythmic lightness coupled with a strong vocal sound. The Christe Eleison was a series of variations before returning to a Kyrie that plumbed the heights and depths.

The Gloria built and fanned out, with a nice, almost lilting falling line on “Gratias agimus tibi” and then a beautiful pianissimo “Jesu Christe. “The “miserere nobis” was a passionate plea for God’s mercy. The men began “Quoniam tu solus” (You alone are the Holy One) in unison and were joined by the women’s voices. The spinning out of the last line, “Cum Sancto Spiritus”, led into a simple, effective one-note Amen.

The Credo is the longest movement, packed with text sung fairly straightforwardly. “Et homo factus est” was thoughtful; “Crucifixus etiam” was somber; and the “resurrexit” was light and airy.

The Sanctus was a tapestry of voices, weaving and rising, with an abrupt change of rhythm on “Pleni sunt coeli (heaven and earth are full)” before the repetitions of Hosanna. After the Benedictus, the Hosannas rose again—into sudden quiet. The final movement, Agnus Dei, had a low drone with high voices over it and strange harmonies. The final trope led into an exquisite ending on “pacem” (peace).

Artistic director and conductor Charles Woodward brought out every nuance.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

À la Française: Virginia Chorale Sings Frank Martin’s Double Choir Mass

First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, October 10, 2015
Review by John Campbell

A single work, Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin (1890-1974) filled the second half of Virginia Chorale’s second program of the season. Written in 1922, Martin’s Mass lay unplayed for forty years. Swiss composer Martin, the tenth and youngest child of a Calvinist minister said of his delay in the 1960s: “I did not want it to be performed...I consider being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.”

At age ten Martin heard Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He was so deeply affected that he decided to devote his life to music. It has been suggested that he may have felt that his music was unworthy of such a high standard.

Hearing the Mass performed so superbly and feeling the experience deeply, I found it necessary to reach out to experts to help describe my experience. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says “It sounds like a Renaissance mass lost in time, aware nonetheless of long centuries passing and new horrors unfolding.”

The Kyrie opens as the women, unaccompanied, spread their sound like encompassing wings. When the men join in there is a startling sense of open space. High, harsh outbursts of “Kyrie” set the pattern of tension contrasted by a relaxed sound in the lower notes. The Gloria’s stark, somber mood is sublime rather than pretty and fully explores the antiphonal and polyphonic possibilities of two choirs. In its closing, “in gloria dei Patris,” the feeling is one of turning inward, ending with sweet, high notes and a lovely melisma by the sopranos.

The Credo is mostly homophonic carrying the weight of the Christian message using vocal entrances to dramatic effect. The layered, dissonant outbursts of “Crucifixus” by the men adds to the complexity.

The Sanctus movement includes a Benedictus. Both begin with short motives in the men’s voices. In Sanctus, when the women enter with a cross-relation you get a vision of the glory of the eternity they are singing about.

If Martin had sought a performance in 1922 it would have ended here. In 1926 he had added the Agnus Dei. The texture of this section was enthralling, carrying us to the very quiet ending of “dona nobis pacem”—grant us peace—as a blessing to end the concert.

Virginia Chorale: Messiah
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk
Review by John Campbell

Conductor and Artistic Director Charles Woodward demonstrated what can be accomplished with 20 singers and 15 instrumentalists. Eschewing full orchestra and massive chorus, he produced an intimate, personal and intense experience of Georg Frederic Handel’s Messiah. A part of the amazingly energetic and focused Chorale, eight members were the featured soloists and what wonderful soloists they were.

The 1980 edition of Grove Dictionary of Music tells us Handel’s English oratorios are his single major innovation and have insured his lasting fame, though in the past 35 years his operas have re-entered the repertory with a vengeance.

The English oratorio is only remotely connected with any of the continental varieties. Handel did not wish to abandon the theater after the Bishop of London banned staged performances of Biblical stories. Un-staged oratorios with vocals treated in an epic style were edifying entertainment and caught-on with the English middle-class. “Sacred drama” as they were known, Israel in Egypt and Messiah stand apart since the text is taken from the Bible and neither has a plot.

Constructed in 1739, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had been established as the Norfolk Borough Church in 1641. Written for the Easter season, Messiah opened April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland and was performed in London the following year. Extracted parts of Messiah were performed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1797. Today, as in most of America, it is an annual Christmas ritual. Though there is a structure for a complete Messiah, the entire work is not usually performed at Christmas. Opera-like arias are dramatic with recitatives that move the narrative along. Most sections end with a grand chorus. Divided into 3 parts, there are 16 scenes in Messiah with 54 pieces all together.

The well-known Christmas sections open with prophecy and the realization of God’s plan to redeem mankind. Tenor Kerry Jennings, who used to teach voice at Old Dominion University, flew in for the performance. The fleet, lithe, sweet tones of the opening Symphony led into Jennings’s caressing gently “Comfort Ye” in a silky, smooth voice. Bass Bryson Mortensen, with full power, comfortably sang that this event would shake-up the world order. The pacing was unhurried and the instrumental accompaniment on period instruments had a rich, sweetness. Alto Judith Bowers gave us the prophecies of the virgin birth. There was amazing clarity of line as the chorus sang “For unto us a child is born.”

When the angels appear to the shepherds our own angelic voice was soprano Jennifer Piazza-Pick. There is excitement in her voice and power to spare. “Suddenly there was with the angels a multitude…” of Virginia Chorale voices, singing sans vibrato and with that amazing clarity of text. Scene 5 is of Christ’s redemptive miracles sung by Corbin Thomas Shoup, a light, high soprano with a shimmering tone in “Rejoice Greatly.” The dancing instrumental sound underlaid her trills. Stephanie Marx offered text on restored sight and hearing as her rich, full sound caressed all who desire rest in their soul. The chorus underscored the message with “His Yoke is Easy.” An amazing lightness of tone in the tenors complimented the sopranos in “His Burthen is light.” The word “light” burst with power embellished with life as if sung by countertenors. Wonderful!

After intermission we moved into the post-Christmas scenario: the sacrifice of Christ, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer and man’s utter defeat, overwhelmed by the power of the Almighty. Light violins accompany the chorus, each voice group alone until they blend beautifully in “Behold the Lamb” followed by Ms. Bowers low, rich consoling a capella “He was despised and rejected,” fully embodying the pathos.

Handel sets us up: in a section about grief and sorrow he begins with the peppy little tune “We, like sheep,” only to lay on us the heavy iniquity of us all at the end of the chorus. Dr. Jennings sang of the rejection of Jesus. Tenor Scott Crissman added the pity of His broken heart, His sacrificial death, passage through hell, and into resurrection. The chorus sings of Christ’s ascension as the King of Glory, moving immediately into a glorious, short chorus, “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.”

All of this section has been a set-up for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The Hallelujah Chorus is not a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. God’s gift of redemption offered by the preachers is rejected by the rulers. Agitated strings accompany bass Mortensen in “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” The excitement in the chorus and tenor Crissman’s recitatives leads into “Hallelujah.” The gospel message has been vindicated!

The third part is a hymn of thanksgiving for the final overthrow of death. Ms. Piazza-Pick’s delicate approach to the lovely tune and sentiment was superb. The stately chorus offers resurrection and then dance music. Bass John Tyndall accompanied by Josh Cohen on a valveless baroque trumpet offered Resurrection in the last days. “Death is swallowed up in victory.” The chorus sums it up in a buoyant, never-heavy celebration of power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and blessing. “Amen” led into a vocal extravaganza of 5 minutes of Baroque splendor to a fanfare ending.

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