Boston Secession

The Hub Review

Human Choral Response

November 13, 2007
Thomas Garvey

Music and sex: their parallels are practically a cliché - except in the hands of Jane Ring Frank, whose recent program, "The Big Oh!," for the Boston Secession (at left, Frank at center), once again displayed her genius for inspired pastiche. Frank's not all that interested in straightforward performances of single works (how dull!); instead, she's a kind of musical magpie, piecing together conceptual montages from sources both familiar and foreign. And with all the splendid pipes in her chorale, she had no trouble making her deeper point: like sex (or so I've heard), music is best when it's a group thang.

But back to the orgasm - at least the musical one; right off the top, Frank got rid of the most overheated candidates for her concert with a hilarious medley that mashed up Carmen, the Grieg Piano Concerto, "Sweet Mystery of Life," and a whole lot more. No, Frank was saying, this isn't a concert of music about orgasms - instead, it's about musical orgasm, that delicious aural climax, which, in the footsteps of Masters & Johnson, she divided into two classes - "masculine," or singular (chart at left), and "feminine," or multiple (sorry, the chart's just too long to post).

With this structural idea as springboard, Frank began bouncing through the Western canon, beginning with a plaintive madrigal from Monteverdi, then jumping to an almost overwhelming choral arrangement of a Verdi aria from Macbeth (with Adriana Repetto reaching piercing top notes), before taking a brief time-out with a piano rendition (by the capable Scott Nicholas) of Wagner's famous ascent up the sexual/harmonic plateau, the "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde. All these represented "masculine," or singular, orgasms, btw - even the splintered hysteria, apparently, of "Litanei," from a Schoenberg string quartet (which here received a committed performance from Mary Sullivan, who's usually cast in sunnier roles).

The second, or "feminine" half of the evening, then presented a series of cyclical structures, from the medieval polyphony of Pérotin (sung exquisitely by the charming Justina Golden and Martin Near), to the interwoven, so-gorgeous-they-nearly-droop vocal lines of the famous duet from Lakmé (here warbled by Kristi Vrooman and Thea Lobo, who do it so well they could make a small career of it). To my mind, however, the most fascinating performance of the evening was a novelty called Bach Again, "decomposed" by Edwin London from one of the German master's choral phrases. Here the Secession singers spread out across the hall (the First Congregational Church in Cambridge), and began vocalizing their parts in long, slow, individualized beats. The phrase soon broke apart - but as the pitches echoed through the vaults above, their overtones began to coalesce into new tones in unearthly timbres; the overwhelming impression was of being inside the phrase - a moment of intense, almost mystical musical depth, and yes, I have to confess, as close to a multiple orgasm as this benighted male may ever get.

The program wrapped with a spirited excerpt from Carmina Burana, and that font of easy tragedy, Agnus Dei, Barber's choral adaptation of Adagio for Strings. I know - obvious (if always welcome) warhorses, both; but no one could carp at the sublime performances of them rendered here. And what's a pastiche without a few familiar touchstones? After the final bow, I realized the concert hadn't had a single dead minute; every selection had been interesting in its own way, and every performance had been memorable - yet another feather in the cap of a chorus that may be Boston's finest, and certainly its most adventurous.

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