St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.
Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.
Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.
The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,
The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.
More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.
The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.
What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.
Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.