Boston Secession

The Hub Review

Sacred music gets its groove on

November 18, 2008
Thomas Garvey

You go to a Boston Secession concert expecting two things: 1) the cleanest choral sound in town, and 2) the smartest, most adventurous programming anywhere, courtesy of Jane Ring Frank (above), the chorale's charismatic leader (think Cambridge's answer to Sarah Palin, only with brains and talent). At last Saturday's concert, "The Sacred Imagination," however, we didn't always get enough of #1, at least not at first, due to a miscalculation on Frank's part in the arrangement of her singers. She made up for this misstep in the second half of her program, however, which was given over to Alfred Schnittke's brilliant Requiem, a lengthy, rarely-heard funeral Mass that it seems Boston Secession was born to sing, in that it's both deeply serious and yet deeply - well - funky; in a word, funeral music with a groove.

But first, the bad news. The concert's opening number, Bach's Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, lacked the clarity Boston Secession is known for, largely because Frank had arranged her singers into quartets rather than blocks (all the sopranos together, all the tenors together, etc.), and the great joy of Bach is his brilliant counterpoint. That rolling sense of intersecting contrapuntal lines, however, tends to dissolve in resonant vaults like those of First Congregational Church (this was a problem last month for the superb Collegium Vocale Gent, too, which also sang in quartets), and with each fugual "voice" essentially scattered, Boston Secession simply couldn't overcome the laws of acoustics (and oddly, their organ and cello accompaniment sometimes sent an unexpected overtone through the mix).

If, of course, Frank and Boston Secession were aiming for a "blended" sound rather than a contrapuntal one - well, we've tried that now, so we don't have to do it again! Certainly there was nothing wrong with Frank's direction of the chorus per se - she gave the piece a joyful lilt, and adjusted the mood appropriately to her next piece, Brahms's more sober (and Bach-derived, though perhaps more canonical than contrapuntal) "O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf."

The singing got better still in the second half, although perhaps here the "adventurous programming" side of the Boston Secession equation took center stage. Although Frank tried to tie Alfred Schnittke to the German tradition of Bach and Brahms in her pre-concert "lecture" (another staple of Secession concerts), this seemed to me something of a red herring (although it's true enough that Schnittke was of German descent, and his work sounds vaguely like German Shostakovich). To be blunt, there's simply a strange, uncrossable chasm between the German choral tradition and Schnittke's eccentric "polystylism," which tries to meld ancient modes, modern harmonics, and pop percussion - and, believe it or not, largely succeeds. And unlike the Bach or Brahms, Schnittke's Requiem faced death squarely, with a mix of poignant mourning and something close to horror - in fact, we half-expected to hear the squeal of an opening tomb during the "Dies Irae" or the "Tuba mirum." The chorus (re-arranged, thank God, into blocks) was riveting throughout, as were soloists Jason McStoots, Jennifer Ashe, Mary Gerbi, Adriana Repetto, and counter-tenor Martin Near (who doubled on bass!). There were a few balance problems with the amplified instruments, but the larger revelation was how startlingly well the electric bass and guitar blended into Schnittke's doomy, fraught soundscape. And what can you say about a "Credo" that has a backbeat except, "Well, why shouldn't the Credo have a backbeat?" It would take more than one hearing to fully assess or analyze this strangely compelling piece of music, but my hat is off to Boston Secession for bringing it before the public. Here's hoping we hear it again, and often.

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