The joint concert of the Harvard and Radcliffe choruses Friday night was not an Etcetera concert. That was fortunate: choral works contain such diversity in their original settings and simple length that an evening of varied chunks and snippets, and Etcetera concert, very easily comes apart at the seams. This concert did not, for the predominance of sacred works accentuated the contrasts among them, and an excellent performance of Schutz's Musicalische Exequien capped the evening off well.
But the chorus got off to a ragged start. The section of Lassus's Lamentations of Jeremiah which it sang may be more suited to this large chorus than the Tallis setting which we heard last year, but the group did not give the important Greek letters Heth, Teth and Jod the great, impersonal majesty they must have. Part of the trouble lay with the women's weakness and faulty pitch; otherwise the chorus gave the Latin text an admirable portrayal. But because the closing Jerusalem did not reach the massiveness it needs, its contrasting somber ending had little finality.
The Ave Maria of Josquin des Pres was considerably better. Elliot Forbes blended the voices with a skill that made Josquin's simple lines shimmer with restrained feeling. When florid melodies did appear, as on the tricky words Nostra Glorificatio, their rhythm and diction were superb.
Different flaws appeared when the choruses separated. The Glee Club's rendition of Schubert's Gesang Der Geister Uber Den Wassern handled admirably the contrasts of stanzas, but the tenors had a thin tone and blended poorly. The five piece string orchestra did have trouble with intonation, but it was a welcome addition.
The Radcliffe Chorale Society was indeed brave in taking on the Verses From the Book of Ruth composed by Claudio Spies in 1959. What mars the work is its stilted literalness, and the performance added to this monotony. Narrator Lee Bradley did not tell us a story: she just read biblical inscriptions. And when the chorus intoned (correctly) "heretofore" and "Israel" with equal stress on each syllable, it was almost laughable. Yet despite the natural problems of pitch, the chorus and soloists did master the music, no mean feat. A performance keyed to the drama of the story could enliven the work, but its little-varied tension is really a pretentious archaism relying more on a cliched aura of biblical language than on the content of the words themselves.
The triumph of the evening was the Schutz work, a Requiem in German built on chorales and biblical verses. The piece's lines have exceedingly involved rhythms which continually vary and oppose each other, and Forbes caught these subtleties brilliantly. The voices did not sit upon each accent, but flowed or lilted in accord with the word's rhythm and meaning. The chorus's force gave the chorales the body which the Lassus lacked.
The seven soloists also made the rhythms mean something, avoiding the heavy tone so easy in Baroque singing. The women's voices were too frail, but the lines otherwise blended with fluent ease. It is interesting that the very presence of this unusually large group of soloists and of an organ and two strings helped focus our attention on the specific expression in the music. Since the sound and very appearance of a men's chorus have ambiguous associations--with the concert hall and the barber shop--concerts as serious as this one need careful programming to make fully clear the chorus's artistic function. Because this program cast the Glee Club as one performer among several, it did that--and helped make the chorus's tails lose much of their pomposity.