Tag Archives: St. Mary Schola

St. Mary Schola Offers a Believable Orpheus

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Quick, name an opera with a happy ending. Against the parade of those one knows will end badly, I can think immediately only of “Der Freischutz” and Gluck’s “Orpheo ed Euridice.” The former ends with the hero undergoing a year of probation, and the latter with a dance in the temple of love, after a deus ex machina, Amore, reverses the tragedy.

The excerpts from “Orpheo,” performed Tuesday night by St. Mary Schola at St. Luke’s, fulfilled Mark Twain’s dream of an opera composed entirely of the parts you have to wait too long for: Orpheus’ journey to Hell, his charming of the vengeful spirits, his rescue and loss of Eurydice, and the reuniting of the lovers by Amore, plus nymphs and shepherds at the end.

(Someday, when I figure out the mechanics of it, I’m going to post the dawn serenade of our Airedale and his Golden Doodle friend, which makes Gluck’s Cerberus music seem tame.)

All the sung parts, the chorus and the orchestra of period instruments, plus guest artist Virginia Flanagan on harp, were uniformly excellent, but the surprise of the evening was the voice of counter-tenor Christopher Garrepy, which suddenly made understandable the use of that range by Purcell and his contemporaries for heroic roles.

In Gluck’s scoring, the counter-tenor voice, as clear and resonant as a classic mezzo-soprano, but with a feeling of reserved power, is ravishing, taming the Furies like Daniel Webster’s oratory to the damned in Hell. His aria, “Che farò senza Euridice,” was worth the price of admission.

Garrepy was well supported by soprano Erin Chenard, a believably jealous Eurydice, and soprano Molly Harmon as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Amore. The final dance-like stanzas by soloists and chorus in the Temple of Love were as delightful as Gluck meant them to be.

The first half of the program, though equally well presented, was not as satisfying to modern ears, although the scenes of dancing around the Maypole, and some risqué verses, were often charming. I find the part singing of Morley, Dowland and their contemporaries on the continent a bit puzzling. The polyphony is intricate but it has no nodes—points were the vocal lines converge into harmonic chords. The melodies are not the sort one goes home whistling.

That the disconnect is the fault of the modern ear was borne out by the increasing sense of familiarity with time, in works by Purcell and Monteverdi. The latter contends with Gluck as the inventor of modern opera, and his dance music in “Il Ballo” is equally good.

The final concert of the St. Mary Schola Spring Series, “A Musical Banquet,” will be 7:30 p.m., June 16, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, It should not be missed.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, Maine. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

The Thinking Man’s Christmas Concert

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 14, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Since its founding in 2008, St. Mary Schola, under the direction of Bruce Fithian, has become so widely appreciated for its performance of music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras that it has outgrown its place of origin, the Church of St. Mary in Falmouth.

One of its three Christmas concerts this year, on Dec. 14, was held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in the chapel, not the huge main building.  I had not been to a concert there before,  but the more intimate setting, and less echoing acoustics, were well suited to the Schola’s music, and to the volume of the antique instruments that accompanied it.

When period instruments were first introduced at the concerts, where much of the singing was a cappella, they seemed to be primarily for the purpose of authenticity. On Tuesday night, however, they made a significant musical contribution as well, blending in perfectly (without the problems of equal temperament tuning), providing appropriate interludes and reinforcing the polyphonic lines.

The recorders were particularly striking in the ritornellos of a Dutch 15th Century” In Dulci Jubillo.”

The Schola approached modernity with “Os Justi” by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), but can be forgiven,,since the composer was trying, successfully, to write in the Lydian mode . The Romantics liked to imagine a simpler, less worldly time, but the music still gives away its 19th Century origin.

Concerts of ancient music might be well advised to stay away from Bach. One is going along pleasantly, enjoying the atmosphere of ancient days, and all of a sudden a lightning stroke of genius startles the ear. At least that was the case with “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 36), from the Cantata No. 36, sung by Andrea Graichen and Molly Harmon, with cello accompaniment by Philip Carlsen.

A work that approached its level of polyphonic sophistication ended the fist half of the concert, a wondrous “Praise Our Lord, all Ye Gentiles,”  by William Byrd (1543-1623).

There was nothing to interrupt the joyous mood of the entire 17-part Christmas Cantata of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) that followed intermission. “In Nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) balances male soloists with the higher voices of the choir, plus instrumental preludes and impressionistic descriptive interludes such as “Night,” and “Awakening of the Shepherds. Tenor Martin Lescault sounded equally fine as an angel and a shepherd.

The cantata has a clever conceit near the end, when the extremes of the Child’s crying, need and cold are equated with the power of HIs love for mankind. Its final verse seemed particularly appropriate this Christmas: “Justitia regnant in terra rostra, et pacis non erat finis.”

The readings in Latin and Middle English, by Stephen White and Rachel Keller, were excellent, but Keller could have read Chaucer’s text a little more slowly, for those of us who are less fluent. As usual, the good program notes and complete texts obviated any problems with translation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Time Travel at the Early Music Festival

Portland Conservatory of Music
Early Music Festival
Woodford’s Church, Portland
Oct. 30. 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Conservatory of Music’s Early Music Festival (Oct. 28, 29 and 30), now in its fifth year, continues to attract talented performers and ever larger audiences. Its Sunday afternoon concert, featuring Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and music from the court of Henry VIII, exemplified both trends.

“To whose more clear than crystal voice the frost had joined a crystal spell.” I thought of Leonie Adams’ line during soprano Anna Schwartzberg’s singing of “I love, loved,“ by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). But everything attempted by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, under Robert Greenlee, was well sung, by both soloists and full chorus.

Amour seems to have been the principal pastime of both the monarch and his court, if the songs from that era are any indication. Like Shakespeare’s in-jokes, they are full of double entendres that now reveal themselves only to scholars but were probably common parlance at the time.

The first song, “Pastime with Good Company,” written and set to music by Henry himself, can be read two ways; an encomium to a good husband is interrupted by clucking chickens, and even the long and lively final work, “El Fuego,” about the Virgin providing water to put out the fires of sin, has its sly moments.

Greenlee has worked with the singers to clearly deliniate parts in the polyphonic works, and to clarify diction enough to make verses understandable. The dynamics were impeccable.

The instrumental accompaniments and interludes were also outstanding, with sufficient volume to balance the choir.

The Monteverdi “Combattimento” was equally well sung and played by members of the St. Mary Schola under Bruce Fithian, who directed a chamber orchestra of period instruments from the harpsichord.

The drama, which is a masque rather than an opera, was the first major work to use music to describe action, in this case the combat between a crusader, Tancredi, and a Muslim knight, Clorinda, who happens to be a woman. She loses the battle and is saved by baptism as she expires. The primary singing role is that of the narrator, or Testo, sung by Martin Lescault. Tancredi, Paul McGovern, and Clorinda, Molly Harmon, have relatively minor singing parts, but mime the scenes described by the narrator.

The action is carried forward by the instrumental music. It is hard to believe that sixteenth notes, depicting swords striking steel, were considered revolutionary at the time. That is the primary obstacle to overcome in hearing the masque: putting ourselves in the role of an audience hearing the piece for he first time. Unless the intended feelings can be conveyed, the exercise becomes more educational than emotional. The battle scenes seem tame to modern ears attuned to movie scores, but the tenderer moments, as when Tancredi discovers his true love under his opponent’s visor, still have magic, as does Tasso’s poetry.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland Bach Festival Coming Soon

Portland Bach Festival
June 19-24, Portland, Maine
by Christopher Hyde

The new Portland Bach Festival, (June 19-24) featuring internationally known artists, the Oratorio Chorale, St. Mary Schola, period instruments, a Bach and beer party at Ocean Gateway, and the Maine premier of a Bach concerto for three violins, is coming up soon, and ticket sales are brisk, according to festival artistic director Lewis Kaplan. Since the venues are intimate—St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth, and St. Luke’s in Portland— it would be advisable to purchase them soon.

The festival is the brainchild of Kaplan and Emily Isaacson, director of the Oratorio Chorale. Kaplan, a prominent violinist and teacher (at Juilliard), recently resigned as artistic director of the acclaimed Bowdoin International Music Festival, which he co-founded over 40 years ago.

While there is always interest in Bach, regarded by many as the pre-eminent composer of all time, the festival also fills in a (relatively) empty time slot, between the regular concert season and the beginning of summer music festivals throughout the state.

Kaplan believes that it will be well attended by local audiences, and also serve as an incentive to music lovers to visit the state. “Concerts in the round, with period instruments, will give audiences an authentic experience of Bach. I’ve played in concerts around he world, and I want people attending these in Maine to feel that the musicians are playing just for them.”

As for the premiere of the Bach Concerto for Three Violins, here is what violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, who will be playing the work, wrote to me about it:

“It is surmised that Bach originally composed a Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major (sometime around 1716 – in which case we would have a 300th year anniversary!) which he then transcribed for 3 harpsichords. (It was a common practice to transcribe pieces for different instruments and to reuse material as necessary.) In the meantime only the autograph of the version for 3 harpsichords survived – known today as the Concerto for 3 Harpsichords in C Major BWV 1064. Various scholars have used that piece to reconstruct the version for 3 violins – now known as the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major BWV 1064R. At the Portland Bach Festival in June we will perform a reconstruction of this piece by the German musician Sebastian Gottschick (who happens to be my husband). The music is all original Bach, and the score has been reconstructed with the intention of capturing all the voices in a manner suitable for the instrumentation.
It is a substantial 3 movement work. The 2 outer movements are quite festive and the slow middle movement is plaintive and lyrical. The 3 solo violins have significant individual roles throughout the piece, and sometimes they play together as a group within the ensemble.”

The concerto will be played at the final concert of the festival, at St. Mary’s Church, on June 24. The program also includes my favorite Brandenburg Concerto, Number 5, with its glorious harpsichord part, to be played by Arthur Haas on a harpsichord by R.G. Regier of Freeport.

Other highlights, in chronological order, include the Cello Suite No. 6, played by the award-winning cellist Beiliang Zhu, on a baroque five-string cello, the Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Continuo in C Minor from “A Musical Offering” – BWV 1079 and the famous Chaconne from the Partita for Violin in D Minor – BWV 1004, played by Kaplan.

Chorale works will include the Cantata, “Wachet Auf” – BWV 140, and the Cantata, “Der Herr denket an uns” – BWV 196, sung by the Oratorio Chorale, and the Motet, “Singet Dem Herrn”­­ – BWV 225, by St. Mary Schola,

Each concert will be preceded by a half-hour exposition of the music, free and open to the public. Children’s events are also free and will include a special concert and an instrument-making workshop.

A complete schedule and information about the artists is at www.portlandbachfestival.org.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

“Today’s Light” Is a St. Mary Schola Christmas

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 classbeat@netscape.net.