by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields hosted the Choir of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 15. Guest conducted by Gareth Wilson, the mixed chorus of approximately two-dozen singers performed a varied program of music with admirable technical polish and moving emotional delineation.
At the start of the concert, Wilson explained that he had only met the chorus nine days ago. The reason for that sudden association was the equally sudden resignation of the choir’s regular director, Geoffrey Webber, earlier this year in April. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 and includes 31 colleges, of which Gonville and Caius is one. Wilson, who directs a choir at another of those 31 colleges, was the choice of the choristers to lead them in their American tour, of which Chestnut Hill’s St. Martin’s Church was one of the concert sites. The singers chose not to abandon the tour, Wilson happily agreed to conduct, and the rest is musical history of the most inspiring sort, since Sunday’s performance was nothing short of stellar.
The program was cleverly divided into two distinct halves: the first exclusively featuring modern sacred music by women composers of the United Kingdom; the second focused on the wealth of sacred and secular choral music taken from a broad swathe of traditions.
The concert opened with an exemplary rendition of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s “O come, let us sing to the Lord.” The composer constructed a finely shaped, unaccompanied score of smoothly voiced tonal music flowing with elegantly phrased inner lines securely supporting the principal motifs.
Oliveria Prescott’s “The righteous live for evermore” was the first score to be published in Great Britain by a woman composer – in 1876, the year of the United States’ bicentennial. Its sweet, old-fashioned melodies are shared between the women and men of the ensemble, with thematic development reaching an impressive level of complexity. It was sung beautifully.
Ethel Smyth’s Latin-language “Sanctus” is surprisingly delicate in tone until the closing “Hosanna.” Judith Bingham’s “God would be born in thee” begins with repeated notes at the bottom of the range of the organ’s pedals and then sports clouds of choral harmonies building in intensity until reaching a full-throated climax. ”My eyes for beauty pine,” composed by Elizabeth and Thomas Coxhead, is a masterpiece of luxuriant harmonies, eloquent phrases, delicate dissonances effortlessly resolved, and clarion textures of glowing transparency. It was sung masterfully. Rhiannon Randle’s “Let there be light” bounced with pointed dialogue between the men and women of the choir, proffering a shimmering sonic ambience.
Rounding out the program’s first half were Judith Weir’s “a blue true dream of sky” to poetry by e.e.cummings, “Ave Regina” by Cecilia McDowall, and “Up beyond the night sky” by Frances-Hoad. The Weir flowed with the freedom of its text, the McDowall sported densely packed harmonies, and the Frances-Hoad was composed for the 75th birthday of Stephen Hawking, an alumnus of the choir’s college.
Charles Villiers Stanford’s “My love’s an arbutus” opened the concert’s second half. Overflowing with lilting rhythms and ample harmonies, it was sung with exquisite sensitivity to its every gesture. George Butterworth’s arrangement of the traditional “A blacksmith courted me” and Geoffrey Webber’s treatment of the traditional “The banks of my own lovely Lee” both conjured up images of rural England and Ireland, respectively, and were sung lovingly. “Four Partsongs” by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco were interpreted with the appropriate dash of spice, as were four selections from Ernst Mahle’s “Carimbo” (Suite of Folksongs from the State of Para). Arrangements by Michael Tippett and Moses Hogan, respectively, of the spirituals “Go down, Moses” and “The battle of Jericho” brought the formal program to a powerful close, with Henry Purcell’s “I was glad” the sole but highly appreciated encore.