by Susan Larson
February 1, 1998
The debut concert of Boston's newest chorus, the Boston Secession, accompanied as it was by a near-blizzard of explicatory material - manifestos, slogans, mission statements, collages, and claims that the group will restore long-lost power and poetry to choral concerts - made you want to throw vegetables at the singers before they opened their mouths.
As it turns out, this ambitious group is doing pretty much what other choruses in town are doing - namely, trying to grab public attention with a new angle, an intriguing hook.
In spite of some of its outrageous claims (''The Boston Secession is here to speak the fire that is truth''), the group is off to an auspicious start. Its program, ''Bach Again,'' or ''New Body, Old Soul,'' a ''lecture-guided performance,'' was beautifully constructed, charmingly narrated, and vigorously executed by conductor Jane Ring Frank.
With a judicious blend of scholarship and quiet humor, Frank traced the histories of three pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, from his day to the present.
Bach's ''Passion Chorale,'' known in English hymnody as ''O Sacred Head,'' began life as a love ditty before it became the unifying hymn of the St. Matthew Passion, where it is heard in six different harmonic treatments. Frank's 19-voice chorus sang several of these with a good blend (no wowing vibratos here), translucent texture, and shapely phrasing. The soprano section sounded oddly undernourished, and the basses' pitch was fuzzy. The murky acoustics of the cathedral blurs diction and gestural incisiveness, but the group coped. The same tune - in treatments by Hans Hassler, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, Helmut Bornefield, and Paul Simon (his ''American Tune'') - was graced with some fine singing by tenor soloist Chris Kerins and soprano Mary Sullivan, and some approximate instrumental intonation that made Reger's harmonies sound even more curdled than the composer may have intended.
Frank followed with Bach's sacred song ''Komm, Susser Tod'' (''Come Sweet Death''), through treatments by Benjamin Britten, an excerpt from Hermann Reutter's variations, imaginatively and spaciously played by Vytas J. Baksys on an inadequate piano; and finally a setting ''decomposed'' by Edwin London, which snapped everybody to attention. As the hymn is sung slowly and purposefully out of synch, the chorus held tight to the grinding dissonances and then released tension in the cadential triads with such tenderness that the piece sounded almost erotic.
One did have the feeling - what with all this chit-chat and only two tunes - of being served the same kind of dim sum over and over again. A random sample of the audience, however, indicated that they were having a great time and that they liked this lecture format very much.
The concert ended with Bach's C major prelude and its offspring, giving Baksys, although not his piano, a chance to shine in Frederyk Chopin's, Claude Debussy's, and, of course, Charles Gounod's homages to Bach. The concert ended with a moving performance of Arvo Part's ''Credo,'' magnificently sung.
This story ran on page E08 of the Boston Globe on 02/01/98. © Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.Read more raves.