St. Mary Schola
First Parish Church, Brunswick
Dec. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde
Fine art is something no longer associated with Christmas. The exception is classical music, and the a cappella choir, St. Mary Schola, this year presents a veritable Uffizi Gallery of masterpieces from the early Renaissance to the Baroque. It is called “Today’s Light” (Lux Hodie).
Christmas doesn’t get any better than this, and music director Bruce Fithian has assembled a selection of choral works, accompanied by period instruments, that is ravishingly beautiful, entertaining, thought-provoking, and easily accessible to the modern ear.
The first of the three-concert series was performed Tuesday night at Brunswick’s First Parish Church. The second will be Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke in Portland, and the third at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth, on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 4:00 p.m.
If you want to be imbued with the true Christmas light in dark times, these, and the Renaissance Voices concerts at St. Luke’s, Dec. 19 and 20, are the ones to attend. St. Luke’s might be the best bet for the Schola; last year it was difficult to get a seat for the St. Mary’s performance.
I think that even children would be enthralled by this concert, especially if they are the slightest bit musical. The program begins with three selections from the 13th Century “Mass of Fools” in northern France, in which a donkey accompanied the officiant at the altar. After each stanza of “Orientis partibus” (in Eastern lands), the congregation chants “Hez, sir asne, hez!” (“Get up, sir ass, get up!”).
The first half of the program emphasized the joyous nature of the holiday. It is hard to single out individual selections from the wealth of musical offerings, but two pieces by William Byrd (c. 1539-1623) were especially notable. The first was an enchanting duet by Erin Chenard and Andrea Graichen: “An earthly tree, a heavenly fruit,” and the second “The day Christ was born,” a motet in which the voices reach heavenly heights.
The most modern composer on the program was J.S. Bach (1685-1750), represented by the duet “Ruft und fleht den Himmel an,” (“Call and pray to heaven”) sung by Abra Mueller and Martin Lescault, a delightful waltz that exemplifies the line “Come you Christians, come to dance!”
It was followed by “Stein, der über alle Schätze” (“Rock, superior to all gems”), sung by soprano Molly Harmon, accompanied on the recorder by Scott Budde.
Fithian saved the best for last—-two works by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). The first, “In navitatem Domini continuum,” depicts the shepherds at the Nativity.
The second, “Magnificat à trois voix sur la même basse avec symphonie,” with Fihian at the Positif Organ, featured the entire choir, soloists Christopher Garrepy, countertenor, John Adams, bass, Martin Lescault, tenor and a “symphonie” composed of Mary Jo Carlsen, violin, Jon Poupore, viola, Katherine Sytsma, viol da gamba, Philip Carlsen, cello, Scott Budde, recorder, and Timothy Burris, theorbo.
It was astoundingly good, not only in harmony and counterpoint, but also in its dramatization of the various sections. On the strength of this work, I was about to commit heresy and declare Charpentier a better composer than Bach, a generation earlier, but I’ll have to wait for more evidence of the kind supplied by St. Mary Schola.
The evening’s music was interspersed with appropriate readings of poets from Milton to Richard Wilbur, by Andrea Myles-Hunkin, who even managed a middle English accent on the last of the Milton excerpts.
The program came full circle, from the topsy-turvey mass of fools to the similar world of the Magnificat, in which “He hath filled the hungry with good things. And the rich He hath sent empty away.”
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.