Sacred music has no part in our lives. In a time when even the Roman Church--pontifex maximus and all--has abandoned the Latin tongue and with it most traditions, there remains barely a shadow of the meaning that church music once had for its listeners. The beauty of the compositions remains intact, however, and Sunday evening's concert was in a nearly ideal setting with the Harvard Glee Club joined by the boys of the St. Paul Choir Scool.
The interior design of St. Paul's Church is, to use the polite word, eclectic. Regardless of that, its acoustics are superb and the two-second echo is a pleasure to hear. Conductor F. John Adams was rigorous in his programming: he chose works by six composers of the Tudor period, a relatively limited historical pool from which to draw compared to the Bach-to-Stravinsky expanse that usually leaves everyone dissatisfied in some way. Adams's approach to programming is commendable for it ensures both an interested, attentive audience (who have come for a specific type of music), as well as a valuable sense of comparison within a style.
The opening Magnificat by John Taverner was pure and on pitch--a welcome relief from the shakiness common to amateur groups' lead pieces at a concert. The chant that began the Magnificat was perfect simplicity and contrasted strongly with the thick polyphonic texture that followed. Of the eleven sections, the Gloria was superb. One huge melisma on the second syllable of principio seemed to suspend all motion and thought.
The Boys Choir joined the Glee Club for the Thomas Weelkes When David Heard. The Choir, prepared by Theodore Marier, is an impressive group. They are weak at the beginning of pieces, though, with a noticeable tendency to whine out the first notes, belying their true ability. When they sing into the upper range, they produce a sound absolutely unearthly--a sound no female voice could match. Dissonances in the soprano register are far more jarring than the same notes in the tenor or bass, and this effect was used advantageously in the Weelkes.
JOHN ADAMS'S conducting is always a pleasure to watch. He moves about with a feeling so genuine that it is not at all disturbing. His ability to draw great contrasts was especially valuable in the brief Thomas Tallis Heare the Voyce and Prayer. The singing of both choirs was strong and round. The composition itself has a hint of the genius found in the famous 40-part motet Spem in alium. By the last work of the evening. Thomas Morley's Service for the Burial of the Dead, the singers were well warmed up. Their diction was excellent and the large intervals between soprano and bass--which put a premium on faithful pitch--were negotiated readily. The beautiful ending with an inverted pedal point was almost ruined by some muddy lower parts, but the total effect was of great majesty and quietude.
Organist David Smith presented five works by Jan Sweelinck in two interludes during the program. The Fantasia Chromatica was the standout with its nearbaroque intensity and artifice finishing with an explosion of virtuoso figures. All five pieces were played with intelligence and imaginative registrations. Once again John Adams has provided an outstanding program, bringing together two of the area's very finest choral groups in a sensitive, thoughtful presentation. He did as much with sacred music as is possible in a distinctly secular age.