james o’donnell

Cantores in Ecclesia review: Polar opposites

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

by BRUCE BROWNE

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.

Continues…