Wednesday afternoon’s first concert by director Joe Miller’s world-renowned Westminster Choir at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke & St. Paul, entitled “Dedication,” offered a very unusual and appealing program of dedicatory music centered around one of nine settings of Litanies de la Vierge (Litanies for the Virgin) by French Baroque master Marc-Antoine Charpentier. While that work was for the usual mixed choir (plus instruments), the remaining items were all rarely-heard works for men’s voices.
The opening selection was a stunning excerpt (the Agnus Dei section) from Josquin des Prez’s Missa Mater Patris, the only mass he wrote for men’s voices. Des Prez is regarded as being the greatest master of high-Renaissance vocal polyphony, and it showed here. Under Miller’s skilled hands, the music’s florid, intertwining vocal lines conveyed an aura of intense spirituality, satisfying both the ear and the soul. For most of us, accustomed as we are to the usual mixed-choir sound in Renaissance sacred music, the men’s rich and mellow sonorities were a rare treat.
Enter the ladies, joining their men for the 10-section Charpentier piece: the afternoon’s magnum opus. Waiting for them was a small ensemble of instrumentalists from the marvelous (and versatile) Spoleto Festival Orchestra. While the work’s opening Kyrie and concluding Agnus Dei sections matched those of the standard Latin mass, the eight sections coming between were all settings of liturgical poems glorifying the mystical attributes of the Virgin Mary, each one ending with “priez pour nous” (pray for us), a fervent supplication for her divine intercession.
The music was a complex marvel of vocal beauty, with instruments, soloist, duets and other smaller sub-ensembles (too many to credit here) weaving in and out of the choral fabric. This gave us the chance to savor many of the remarkable individual voices — each of solo quality — that make up this peerless chorus, no doubt America’s finest academic choir. These singers have performed very little Baroque-era music with instruments over Spoleto’s history, but with this event coming hard on the heels of last year’s special concert of the music of Bach and Buxtehude, let’s hope that a new (and very welcome) trend is in the making. In any event, most (if not all) of the choral aficionados that packed the Cathedral could hardly imagine a better performance of this glorious work.
This year, WC’s women faced the daunting task of performing as the female chorus in Proserpina, one of Spoletos operas, and the men must’ve felt a bit left out, so Miller gave them something special to do. Thus the ladies departed, leaving the stage to the gentlemen. One of the new directions Miller has taken his choir in since becoming its director is to the wonderful choral tradition of the Baltic nations, and one of their modern choral pioneers is the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. His linked pair of short pieces known as Double Dedication sets the verses of two famous Estonian poets who were forced to flee their homeland into political exile during the dark years of Soviet occupation. The remarkable music employs the same melodic themes for both poems, while achieving an entirely different mood in each piece. The sonorous gents beguiled our ears with a potent song of protest, followed by a poignant song of farewell.
The men then honored the work of two of America’s modern choral gurus: Robert Shaw and Alice Parker. Tirelessly promoting the cause of social and racial integration through music, these pioneers spent decades hunting down and making vibrant choral arrangements of spirituals, work-songs and other examples of folk music, like the sea-shanties and traditional Scotch-Irish tunes that immigrants had brought with them to America. Most committed American choral singers have performed at least a few of them.
But the most seldom-heard of these arrangements are those for men’s voices, and so we were blessed beyond measure to hear five such numbers here. We thrilled to their juicy, masculine sound in “Darling Nelly Gray,” “Whup! Jamboree” (complete with foot-stomping), “Lowlands,” and “Green Grow the Rashes, O.” But they really brought the house down with their hearty and joyous rendition of “Set Down Servant,” an exuberant spiritual.
Tough luck if you missed this terrific program, as it won’t be repeated. But the WC still has two concerts to go — three if you count their big choral-orchestral gig (Mozart’s Coronation Mass and other works). But if pure choral music is your bag, be there for either of the WC’s choir two remaining concerts (same program, entitled ”Flower of Beauty”).