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The Boston Globe

Contemplating eternal rest, with an extra electric twang

November 18, 2008
Jeremy Eichler

CAMBRIDGE - Under Jane Ring Frank's direction, the Boston Secession chorus has carved a niche for itself in the city's bustling choral landscape, in part through its sound musicianship and its distinctive programming. On Saturday night at First Church, a good-sized crowd turned out to hear the chorus open its 12th season with a program that included the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's seldom performed Requiem.

Secession prefaced the work with selections by Bach ("Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden") and Brahms ("O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf") - choices that seemed to serve double duty by presumably drawing audience members more familiar with these composers as well as making an argument that Schnittke's work should be viewed in dialogue with the Austro-German musical tradition. The latter is certainly true, as attested to by Schnittke's particular stylistic evolution, his ethnic German family roots, and his own declarations of cultural faith. "For me, this interaction of Russian and German music is fundamental and final," he once said. "It is what I came from and what I came to."

Saturday night's program got off to a late start, as Frank chose rather bafflingly to read what amounted to a lengthy program note rather than simply printing it in the program. The Bach and Brahms motets were capably sung with a pure and carefully blended ensemble tone, though the resonant acoustics in the church made clarity an issue in some of the fugal passages of the Bach in particular.

Schnittke wrote his Requiem in the early 1970s, and because of the Soviet regime's hostility toward certain liturgical traditions, the composer wisely chose to smuggle his work into the incidental music he was writing for Schiller's "Don Carlos." Its sound world is a rich and eloquent blend of ancient and modern textures, the plaintive purity of chant occasionally smeared with dissonance or prodded by the twang of electric guitar and electric bass. The score also calls for organ, piano, elaborate percussion, and trumpet and trombone, though there were no brass present on Saturday night.

Balance and clarity issues arose in the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum movements, especially with the amplified instruments echoing through the church, but overall this was an appealing performance of a work that is striking, for Schnittke, in its sincerity and its simplicity. Jason McStoots was a standout with his pure-toned tenor solo in the Sanctus movement underpinned by electric bass.

Under Frank's committed direction, the chorus as a whole sang with energy and focus. They deserve credit for bringing this fascinating music back before the public.

Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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