St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
St. Mary Schola, the early music choir founded by Bruce Fithian a decade ago, celebrated its anniversary this week with three concerts, two at its namesake church in Falmouth and one Tuesday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.
Their Christmas gift was a complete performance, with baroque chamber orchestra, of “The Christmas Story” by Heinrich Schütz, first sung in 1660, when the composer was 75.
The work is operatic in nature, with a long narrative recitative telling the familiar tale, interrupted at key points by musical interludes that highlight the more important—and dramatic— scenes. It is based on passages from the translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther.
The translation in the program would have been more moving to most English speakers if it had used the King James version of the selected verses.
That said, the part of the Evangelist (who narrates the story) was masterfully sung by tenor Martin Lescault, who managed a flood of rapid German with aplomb. The Evangelist is generally matter-of-fact, but where emotion does break out, as in Rachel weeping for her children, or the joyous conclusion, he made the most of it.
The interludes, or intermedia, are early examples of tone painting in music, and must have been highly effective to an audience with senses innocent of moving images on a screen. For the most part they remain viable today. The bucolic recorders portraying the Shepherds in the Field, or the shrill trumpets that accompany Herod, worked very well. The angel urging Joseph to get up and get out of Egypt, sung by mezzo-soprano Jenna Guiggey, reminded me of Bach’s “Wachet Auf.”
The orchestra was excellent, especially in the concluding passages with full chorus, in which its full volume was realized.
It was in volume that the performance was a little short of ideal. I did not hear the concerts at St. Mary’s, but what might have worked perfectly there was not loud enough to fill the larger space at St. Luke’s, especially with the larger audience.
The same was true of the spoken interludes during the first half of the program. Those doing the readings were not professional actors, and did not have the clarity and resonance to make themselves understood in the back of the hall.
The first half had some beautiful,and unusual touches, mostly repeats of works performed at previous St. Mary Schola Christmas concerts. Of note was the “Learned of Angel,” by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and a grand “Jerusalem gaude gaudio magno” by Jacob Handl (1550-1585). The bright star, however, was an enchanting “Videte miraculam” of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), which was truly miraculous.
The Christmas season has an embarrassment of musical riches, but I want to mention two of the more unusual: a screening of “Messiah” sponsored by the Bach Virtuosi Festival at Cinemagic in Westbrook at 7:30 on Dec. 18, and pianist Diane Walsh at Lewiston’s Franco Center, Dec. 21 at 7:00 p.m. Walsh is one of the foremost interpreters of modern piano music and will be playing “A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979” by George Crumb, in addition to more familiar classics.
Admission to the “Messiah” simulcast, live from Trinity Church in Manhattan and featuring members of the Bach Virtuosi, is free for up to four people with a message requesting tickets to bachvirtuosifestival.org.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.