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Retreat From Indifference

World Premiere of Donald Martino's Seven Pious Pieces at last Sunday's Memorial Church service

By Kenneth Hoffman

THE MASSIVE indifference of listeners to contemporary compositions is legion. For the past century of more, the taste of the musical public has become increasingly conservative as contemporary compositions retreat further from the comfortable domain of traditional harmonies. Donald Martino's professional life is at the center of this problem: he is the head of the New England Conservatory's composition department, a man who oversees the training of composers.

Whether deserved or not, the indifference of the majority towards new works remains to blight the creative efforts of today's composers. Their works often become all the more mannered, even more unapproachable to the layman. Yet it is possible to accomodate the listeners and not sacrifice the newer sounds available in composition. Martino's Seven Pious Pieces, last Sunday morning's anthem at Memorial Church, exhibited a graceful modernity in contrast to the often-raucous exercises choirs deliver in contemporary pieces.

Martino used tonal centers strong enough to appease the eighteenth century ears with which most listeners are equipped, but he did not do so in a blatantly reactionary fashion. It is an accomplishment to expand the appreciation of an audience without offending it: at best, the result is a Mozartean perfection of pre-established forms; at worst, it is misguided invention better spent writing yet another Bach chorale. In between those extremes, only the passage of time can determine whether the effort was a mere transitionary stroke or a truly original statement.

Only five of the seven pieces were performed. Of them, the fourth was striking for its delicate setting of the moving and sincere Robert Herrick (1591-1674) text:

When once the Soule has lost her way,

O then, how restlesse do's she stray!

And having not her God for light,

How do's she erre in endlesse night!

The vocal texture began in octaves and then thickened on the fourth word to a full four-part harmony. Though the piece was done a capella, an optional keyboard accompaniment exists which employs some startling effects such as the contra-octave CCC more than three octaves below the male voices at the end of the first line.

The pieces have an honest religiosity without sacrificing craftsmanship. Martino's use of the lowest alto range in "God hath two wings" was clever: effective not for the low notes but for severely limiting the range for the entire length of the stanza. Martino over-used violent marcato attacks, lending a cheap theatricality quite out of character with the over all tone.

The choir was admirable for its good diction, pitch, and attack. The sopranos handled the difficult syncopations at the end of the first piece with precision. It seemed unlikely for the quality of Mem Church music to rise still higher after last year's triumphant Schuetz festival; but last Sunday's premiere was commendable for its technique and still more so for its presentation of contemporary choral material, a musical genre so often maligned or ignored.

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