Singing to a happily packed Carnegie Hall, The Cecilia Chorus of New York, led by music director and conductor Mark Shapiro, presented two masterpieces of mid-twentieth century choral music. Francis Poulenc’s Gloria (1960), though not written explicitly for the Christmas season, is a perfect celebration of it. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, A Christmas Cantata (1954), in contrast, is an anthology-style oratorio about Christmas itself, the very day of Jesus’ birth. Different in style and national origin, the two works nonetheless complement each other, presenting Christmas joy from a variety of perspectives.
Poulenc’s Gloria is written for chorus, orchestra and one soprano soloist. The short text is the ancient, formal praise-filled invocation of God in his complex, multifaceted identity as God himself, God’s only begotten Son, and the Lamb of God who will sit at God’s right hand. This is dense theological material. It is hard to navigate or fathom; at the same time, the Latin words would have been as familiar to Poulenc’s audience – as to most modern Catholic or Anglican ones – as childhood nursery rhymes and folk tunes.
Poulenc took this completely familiar and enduringly mysterious sixteen-century-old text and set it to music that is elegantly and unexpectedly angular: high-flying, unexpected and rich melodies are hitched to funky syncopated rhythms, and restless chord shifts are alternately reassuring and unsettling. Of this central creed text, the choral singing carries the experience and energy of faith in community and the soprano solo carries both the universality and the particularity of every person’s individual relationship with God.
In this performance, chorus, orchestra and soprano were in near perfect balance with each other throughout the piece. The orchestra was crisp on the one hand and sensuous on the other. The Cecilia Chorus, as always, was keenly attuned to Shapiro’s direction, singing with close attention to Poulenc’s – and later Vaughan Williams’ – rhythmic and melodic intentions.
Soprano Liv Redpath was splendid in this Gloria. Her powerful, full voice and intelligent musicianship made her a fine partner for both orchestra and chorus. The opening notes of the soprano’s first entrance, “Domine Deus,” couldn’t possibly be trickier, moving from a high register piano to a mezzo piano more than an octave below, starting from a silence of harmonic uncertainty. Redpath demonstrated both her control and her deeply felt expressivity from the very beginning. Her voice had a quality of experienced wisdom that, combined with its beauty and strength, made her a fine match for Poulenc’s assignment both a theological and psychological presence in this account of God’s core mystery. Redpath’s hushed closing “Amen,” at once earthy and ethereal, was gorgeous.
Chorus and orchestra were in fine form for the Vaughan Williams’ complex and demanding Hodie just as they had been for the Poulenc; Redpath was, too.
Like Redpath, tenor Daniel T. Curran and baritone Takaoki Onishi turned their powerful, flexible voices to the sacred texts with skill and passion.
Curran’s Angel in the second movement, “Narration,” was compellingly clear and confident, managing a rewarding integration of divine silveriness and manly triumph as he announced, “Emmanuel, God with us!” Later, in the twelfth movement, “Hymn” by William Drummond, Curran rendered the early seventeenth poem as a mystical text, singing as both an announcer of mystery and a participant in it.
Onishi’s deep, smooth and tender voice, conveyed the poignancy of Thomas Hardy’s “Oxen,” turning centuries-old winter-season faith into transcendent human hope. Onishi’s account of George Herbert’s exultant “Pastoral” soared: it was operatic in its passionate scope and ineffably faith-filled, ending with a final line – “and my music shine” – that was huge and exquisite.
In one sense, just as Hodie is an “anthology” piece, bringing together a wide variety of New Testament and literary sources, it is also a complex conversation among four kinds of musical sounds: chorus, orchestra, soloists and treble choir. This conversation itself, in a pleasing sway, alternates between narrative and response.
Vaughan Williams’ decision to have a treble choir accompanied by organ carry the narrative – singing texts primarily from the Gospels according to Luke, Matthew and John – is a musical one that serves the core human hope of the Christmas story: the sweet, clear youth of the trebles’ optimistic voices virtually guarantees the sure truth of peace on earth and good will among God’s creatures.
This concert constituted the first performance of the Every Voice Concert Choir, an offshoot of the Teachers College Youth Choir, founded in 2008. This Concert Choir is made up of choristers who are ready for rigorous and advanced musical training. Their director is Nicole Becker, the choir’s founder, a professor and musician at Teachers College of Columbia University.
In the narrative portions of the Hodie, sung by the Every Voice Concert Choir, Becker conducted the trebles as Shapiro directed the organ and continued to conduct singers and orchestra. Becker and Shapiro’s collaborative conducting enabled the trebles to shine within the context of an entirely adult performance: the trebles sang clearly, rhythmically, intelligently and musically.
(One particularly commendable element of the Every Voice Concert Choir’s performance was the young singers’ very fine enunciation. Indeed, the soloists and Cecilia Chorus all enunciated their words particularly well. It is a disconcerting reality that excellent enunciation, which we should all be able to expect in every choral performance, is so often missing; its presence here, especially from the trebles, was therefore noteworthy.)
Singers and instrumentalists alike seemed to genuinely enjoy the music but the celebratory feel of the performance had a high-intensity quality to it that was occasionally unnerving as much as it was exhilarating. Shapiro took both pieces at a stunningly fast clip. For those passages of the two pieces that are technically demanding in terms of rhythmic and harmonic complexities within the context of fast tempi, Shapiro’s speed turned what can be musical virtuosity into athletic intensity.
The audience responded with wonder and applause – as gymnastics or basketball crowds sometimes do – but musical subtleties, and therefore some theological and poetic ones, were lost. This excessive speed applied especially to major choral passages, turning them into pyrotechnic displays rather than opportunities for spiritual expansiveness: although the chorus was fully up to the high speed technical challenges, the richness of the music sometimes felt glossed over.
But the audience did love it all: each member of the musical conversation – orchestra, chorus, soloists, Becker and the Every Voice Concert Choir, and Shapiro himself – received intense, exuberant, even rowdy applause. For performers and audience alike, this concert constituted a lively and energetic contribution to the season’s good cheer and creative generosity.
Cecilia Chorus of New York: Poulenc: Gloria & Vaughan Williams: Hodie, A Cantata for Christmas (December 13, 2014)
Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan
Running time: Poulenc (first half): 29 minutes; Vaughan Williams (second half): 49 minutes