March 18, 2008
CAMBRIDGE - Boston Secession is a 10-year-old, 30-member professional choral ensemble that produces magnificent singing and unusual programming. Sometimes unusual verges on a little wacky, and one's gratitude that this group takes risks may be offset by a puzzled, "What were they thinking?!" Such was the case on Saturday at Secession's concert at First Church, Congregational.
The concert's title was "Handel in the Strand," and its theme was Handel's influence on other composers. This was an odd theme, because the German-born, English-resident composer influenced everybody. J.S. Bach is thought to have heard a vanished Handel "Passion." Beethoven called Handel "the greatest." There would be no Bellini without Handel, no Verdi without Bellini, and no John Harbison without any of them. Handel is like the air, or God: everywhere and nowhere.
You know, however, where he has been rubbed out. The program ended with the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah," "re-composed" by the young British composer Paul Ayres. This was clever (contrapuntal passages squeezed together, harmonic shifts moved upward) and brilliantly performed, and left you with even more respect for the Parthenon-like elegance of the original.
The program, energetically conducted and narrated by artistic director Jane Ring Frank, included works by Gay, Britten, Weill, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and only one (alas) by Handel, "Sing Ye to the Lord" from "Israel in Egypt."
Counter to tradition, lighter fare came first, with a spliced-together sequence that told the story of "The Beggar's Opera" through the music of three composers, John Gay, Weill, and Britten. Musically interesting, these did not cohere dramatically without spoken dialogue. Jason McStoots's light Irish tenor made something lovely of Britten's "If the heart of a man is depressed with cares," which ends with the dark shout, "I must have women!" In the play, this would point to murder; out of context, it was just odd.
The second half was made up of big movements taken from four great choral masterpieces. This was a lot to take in and, so segmented, reminded me of Art Buchwald's 10-minute rush through the Louvre. However, this music brought out the best in Frank's extraordinary chorus, notable for its beautiful balance, musical surety, and English-styled straight-toned singing, with several fine soloists among them. Perhaps a more massive sound was needed for Brahms's "Triumphlied," Op. 55. Still, Secession can do great things and the concert aimed to whet the appetite to hear more of them, in complete works.
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