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Celebrating the Mystery

December 18, 2007

'Tis the season to be singing, and Schola Cantorum has made its contribution to this year's choral celebrations in performances presented by the San Francisco Early Music Society and ably directed by Paul Flight. Saturday's concert at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley was especially welcome to lovers of the motet O Magnum Mysterium, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, who used musical material from it in his Missa O Magnum Mysterium .
In a brilliant stroke of programming, Victoria's mass was interspersed with other Renaissance music. The Kyrie and Gloria, near the beginning of the program, opened with the perfect-fifth intervals of the familiar motet theme. The long Credo, toward the end of the first half, was enlivened by judicious choices of dynamics, phrasing, and rhythmic figures. The Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei came together after the intermission, the motet theme again sounding in the Sanctus.

Victoria built from the clear counterpoint of the Sanctus through to a Benedictus in the tenor, alto, and soprano voices, with its sparkling Osanna, and then into a lovely Agnus Dei, breaking into a rising theme in major mode, passed from part to part that provided a luminous ending to the Mass.

The singers of Schola Cantorum S.F. are four female sopranos, three male altos, three tenors, and four basses. Most of them are able to sing in other ranges, as well, so that they are well-equipped to group into double choirs and to sing effective unisons and solos. They are also versatile in adapting their voices to music of many styles and eras. The program started with 15th-century carols combined with William Walton's 20th-century setting of a 15th-century text.

Between Victoria's Gloria and Credo we heard, from the 16th century, three pieces telling the story of Jesus' birth. G.P. de Palestrina's Surge, illuminare (Arise, shine), preceded by a 7th-century chant written for double choir pitched toward the higher ranges, was followed by another double-choir piece by Samuel Scheidt, pitched lower. Hans Leo Hassler followed Scheidt in telling the story of the shepherds and the angels, liberally sprinkled with enthusiastic Alleluias.

Some interesting juxtapositions occurred in the second half. Johann Walter's setting of the gently rocking lullaby Joseph lieber, Joseph mein was paired with Orlando de Lassus' Resonet in laudibus (Resound in praise), the Lassus starting with the same tune as Walter's in 6/8 time (on a different text) and morphing into 4/4 time.
Impressive Vocal Adaptability
Two settings of the Russian Bogoroditse dyevo (Rejoice, oh virgin) were strikingly different. Arvo Pärt's setting is lively and ends loud. Rachmaninov takes it slower, builds up to a fortissimo, and makes a diminuendo down to a piano ending, on the words addressed to Mary: "You have borne the Savior of our souls." We could see that the two distinct readings by these two composers have an equal validity. The singers displayed an impressive ability to adapt their voices, in both volume and color, to works from our own time.

The singers and their repertoire went from strength to strength as the concert proceeded to its end. Following Victoria's gorgeous Agnus Dei, each stunning piece was given a magnificent performance. Scheidt's Puer natus in Bethlehem (A boy is born in Bethlehem) provided unison singing, echo effects, and exuberant Alleluias. William Byrd's Puer natus est nobis, with its complex counterpoint, its meter and tempo changes, and a beautifully written transition into the Amen, was sung with impeccable intonation, phrasing, and articulation.

The same could be said of Schola's singing of Victoria's Senex puerum portabat (An ancient held up an infant) — a convoluted setting of a convoluted text — and Jacob Handl's setting of the Three Kings story.

The first half of the concert ended with a motet by Jean Mouton punctuated by Noels, and a rambunctious performance of Riu, riu, chiu (nonsense refrain to a long theological disquisition on Mary, God, the Lamb, and other points). The concert ended with a veritable cascade of Noels — Noe, noe by Antoine Brumel — described by Paul Flight as the "15th-century equivalent of Jingle Bells."

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.

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