Cantores in Ecclesia review: Polar opposites

Choir's program of two very different 20th century masses produces different degrees of success


A pigtailed girl skips up the center aisle after getting a pre-concert hug from her parent. She clutches a musical score to her chest and her face is filled with gleeful anticipation of the music to come. She has no idea that the score, the Frank Martin Mass, which covers one-half of her tiny torso, is one of the most revered and defining choral works she could be singing. She sings for the pleasure music brings her life. She is a treble in Cantores in Ecclesia, the Portland choir that performed Monday, February 20, at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

James O’Donnell led Cantores in Ecclesia. Photo: Hyperion Records.

This was a program of polar opposites. The shivering white ice flow of Igor Stravinsky’s Mass of 1948 was set against the much warmer and highly coloristic woven tapestry of the Mass of 1923 by Frank Martin. In a wonderful coup by Cantores, the guest conductor, James O’Donnell, was on the podium – all the way from Westminster Abbey, London. O’Donnell is an icon at the Abbey, organist and choirmaster — in Hollywood-speak, choirmaster to the royals and ruling class. He demonstrated his grace and skill in this concert.

Martin and Stravinsky enjoyed similar life spans of over 80 years, and lived contemporaneously — Martin (a Swiss Huguenot by birth) mostly in the Netherlands, and Russian-born Stravinsky, a lifelong expat, in Russia, France, Switzerland, and America. But what different paths they took. Stravinsky: commercial, secular by comparison, and more famous by the time of the Mass, having already composed The Firebird and Symphony of Psalms, for example. Martin was the son of a pastor, insular, unconfident in his craftsmanship, but in his way, just as inventive and vibrant as Stravinsky. For example, another of Martin’s choral pieces, the Songs of Ariel, commissioned in 1953 for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, is a wonder of Shakespearean exposition: onomatopoeic articulations, harmonic shifts, and jolting musical ideas for his time.

Can two pieces be any more different? The Martin Mass, set for a cappella double choir, is by far the more harmonically fetching and varied. From pentatonic, (a scale based on five tones instead of the traditional seven) to quasi-far eastern to the bell-like opening chords of the “Sanctus,” its constantly changing styles are captivating. Martin wrote this piece in his early thirties as “a matter between God and myself” and 40 years later, at its revival, deemed it underdeveloped and flawed. He later remarked “it was much better than I thought.” And he was right.

Stravinsky’s Mass, in stark contrast, is scored for double woodwind quintet (two each of oboes, bassoons and trumpets; one English horn, and three trombones) and voices. The composer meant for it to be included in a liturgical setting.

Scholars place this work center “mass” in Stravinsky’s neo-classical period but as it is a liturgical work, I think its personality more “neo-medieval” than anything else. Unleavened by any advanced harmonies or much polyphony (more than one melody line at a time, which developed after the medieval period), it has a monolithic structure yet is unmistakably chant-influenced, and its consecutive intervals of 2nds, 4ths and 5ths and prevailing open harmonies (tending toward the omission of 3rds in a chord) all echo the 14h-15th century style.

Consider the opening of the “Gloria”: a duet of two soloists, using measure bars, sure, but really sounding unmeasured, much like the early lines of conductus and other idioms of Medieval choral music. A homophonic congregational “mumbling” from the choir follows, and then the soloists reappear, again accompanied by oboe, trumpet and bassoon, in a spare, open kind of delivery.

Alas, the challenge is to bring the whole work to life, but in the physical confines and acoustics of St. Marys, Stravinsky’s Mass did not thrive.

The wind instrument players were placed in a straight line, in front of the choir, inviting balance problems. They sometimes overpowered the choir. It would have helped if the winds had played with more finesse and sensitivity; and maybe if they had instead deployed themselves in an arched formation, the better to hear each other, things would have fared better.

Two highlights were the singing of the children’s choir component of the chorus, and the soloists: soprano Mel Downie Robinson, alto Kerry McCarthy, tenor Blake Applegate, and bass Chris Engbretson.

The choir as a whole delivered as well as they could under the circumstances of the dense acoustics from the apse of the Cathedral (behind the altar). Sopranos and tenors were spot on; altos, too, although harder to hear. The basses seemed unsettled in both sonic values and precision of pitch.

Director Blake Applegate usually conducts Cantores in Ecclesia.

Prevailing acoustics of a venue must be an equal partner in any performance. The acoustic must be carefully considered — distance between choir and crowd, distance between choir and instruments, ring time and reflecting surfaces. When acoustical ring time is above 2.0 seconds, the resulting overlap between what the singers are singing and what they just sang seconds earlier produces an additional challenge to overcome, particularly when instruments are involved. I’d like to hear another run at last Monday’s performance, with all forces up front, i.e., in front of the altar and on the steps.

In past hearings (and directing) of the Stravinsky, I’ve always loved hearing a clean, clear sound, where the winds appear to be coming from a small music box, in support of the vocal forces – the stripped down delicacy of scoring that is a hallmark of Stravinsky’s famously icy neo-classicism. In this performance the delicacy was absent.

Successful Gambit

The Martin was entirely another matter. With the singers facing each other in polychoric formation, Cantores in Ecclesia, veterans of a cappella singing, wore a garland in all sections of this piece. Mr. O’Donnell cast a spell of crisp articulation, imaginative phrasing, and standout intonation throughout, bringing out the best in one of the truly great works of the last century. In one singer’s words, the Martin was truly rewarding, but “bloody hard.” Vive la difference.

Applegates père et fils.

The Cantores in Ecclesia Youth Choir was unflappable in their singing, informed and shielded by their youth, naiveté, and excellent training by music director Blake Applegate. Stravinsky explicitly called for the use of children’s voices; the decision to use the Cantores Youth Choir in the Martin was an aesthetic and pedagogic decision by Applegate, who is dedicated to introducing the great choral works to his young singers. It was a successful gambit in the double choir formation, adding purity and delicacy to the treble sound.

Three generations of the Family Applegate were involved in this Cantores program: founding director and non-singer Dean, current director Blake and his sister Jane, and Blake and Anna Song’s two children, Grace and James.

Appreciation of the music of Martin and Stravinsky will continue for generations. I hope that little girl carrying the large score will sing these two works again someday.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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