Since the 1670’s, the Choir has consisted of voices ranging from bass to treble, all students at St. John’s College or the College School. There are currently six basses, five tenors, four counter-tenors and seventeen trebles; of the trebles – two or three of whom are no bigger than buttons – there currently appear to be thirteen families represented. In some senses, the trebles are the stars of the show: that such young boys should demonstrate such consistently high levels of both innate musicianship and disciplined formal training is remarkable. The sweetness of tone inherent to boys’ soprano voices is not like anything else: its combined ethereality of the moment and promise of future sturdiness make it a perfect instrument for the invocation of angels, heavenly beauty and divine wisdom.
For hundreds of years, this characteristic, one which cannot be replicated by adult sopranos – as many modern choirs, presenting the same repertoire, try to achieve – has been used by choral composers in the Anglican tradition, matching music to text, to highlight the mystical meanings of theological and liturgical texts and sacred literature. The St. John’s College Choir exemplifies the best of this tradition. Throughout this concert, Nethsingha brought out the very best of individual Anglican composers’ signature qualities without veering into exaggeration or cliché.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Mass in G Minor had moments of breathtaking loveliness: lush, liquid cascades of sound were sunny and expansive. This was a technically clear and precise Mass, one whose beauty was never marred – as Vaughan Williams’ music can be in less competent hands – by sentimentality. The early modern musical complexity of Byrd’s Civitas Sancti Tui was rigorous without being rigid; the sweetness of the treble voices added poignancy to the ancient lament-text. As the traditional repertoire of the concert made its way through the grandeur of Henry Purcell to the huge Romantic sweep of C. Hubert Parry and William Harris, Nethsingha led the Choir – and its organists – in performances that retained a distinctive sound of clarity and forthrightness. When ornamentation was called for, there was no arcane fuss; when dynamic majesty was summoned, there was no self-indulgent swoopiness.
As Nethsingha and his many colleague practitioners of Anglican church music often note, one of the important responsibilities of contemporary churches, choral societies, church and cathedral choirs, and church musicians lies in ensuring the continued growth of Anglican musical repertoire: each era must leave the repertoire as enriched as all the eras before it have. To this end, Nethsingha and the Choir of St. John’s College regularly commission new works, and since 2014 alone have premiered new compositions by eight composers. This St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue concert included three recently composed works – O Thoma by James Burton (b. 1974), The Annunciation by Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) and Gloria (Missa Brevis) by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) – each of which, beautifully performed, successfully presents new musical ideas within a musical tradition which, by virtue of its purpose and goals, tends to be conservative in nature.
Burton’s short O Thoma is complex and intense; the exuberantly celebratory passage – “Tibi levamos pocula” – was particularly fun, an apt reminder that sacred joy can be giddy and boisterous, a happy whoop (and a particularly pleasing piece for this Fifth Avenue church). Composed for Epiphany for the Choir of St. John’s College and the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers, whose patron saint is St. Thomas, the piece is set to a vigorous Latin text composed by Hugh Barbour (b. 1960). The language choice for the poetry links both the poem and the composition to the historical past, but the music is accessibly and felicitously contemporary.
More musically substantive and subtle is Harvey’s The Annunciation, set to the evocative, prayerful poem by Orkney Islands poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). In the development of his musical ideas, Harvey replicates Muir’s two central themes of a mystical meeting of earth and heaven and the precious eternal promise of this “endless afternoon.” The lyrical concluding line – “As if their gaze would never break” – embodied mystery sustained over time and space.
Versatile and prolific composer Dove’s Gloria for choir and organ was generously exciting, an exhilarating invitation to movement and celebration. (Some of the littler choristers, though dutifully constrained by their formal performance protocol, came close to dance-like jumpiness as they sang out the music’s joy.) This Gloria was marvelous.
All three of these very recent pieces, though essentially conservative compositionally, achieved the important goal of enriching and continuing Anglican choral music repertoire, maintaining tradition while infusing contemporary sensibilities.
During the course of the evening, St. John’s College Organ Scholars Glen Dempsey and Joseph Wicks played organ solos – Dempsey played Buxtehude and Wicks played Elgar – which functioned as “spacers” in the vocal performances. Dempsey and Wicks played exceptionally well, though the pieces themselves and the placement of their playing in the program probably did not give either musician an opportunity to demonstrate the range of his talents or skills.
Atypically, this concert included an encore. Nethsingha told the audience that Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est was the first piece he ever conducted for John Scott and that he wanted to dedicate this performance of it to Scott’s family. Bruckner’s piece is a moving account of the mystical meaning of the Incarnation; its quietness is at once sensuous and ethereal, its mysteriousness imbued with an unlikely optimism. Different in sensibility from much of the Anglican crispness of the program, it was nonetheless a lovely conclusion to a wonderful evening, one in which repertoire and very young singers alike ensured the future of beautiful sacred music in a world which sorely needs beauty’s affirmation.
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge (April 5, 2016)
St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue
1 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission