Polychoral Pleasures and a World Premiere in Seattle

United StatesUnited States  Tavener, Duruflé, Biebl, Schütz, et al: Seattle Pro Musica, Karen P. Thomas (conductor); Seattle Girls Choir Prime Voci, Jacob Winkler (conductor); Northwest Girlchoir Ensemble, Sara Boos (conductor); St. James Cathedral Jubilate!, Stacey Sunde (conductor), St. James Cathedral, Seattle, 20.5.2012 (BJ)

Tavener: Hymn to the Mother of God (for 2 choirs), Angels, Song for Athene
: Tota pulchra es
: Ave Maria
: Cantate Domino
: Ave Maria (for 2 choirs)
: I Sing of Love (world premiere)
: Spem in alium (for 8 choirs, 40 voices)
: Stabat Mater
: Magnificat
: Beautiful Valley of Eden (for 4 choirs)
A. Gabrieli
: Magnificat (for 3 choirs)
G. Gabrieli
: Exultet jam angelica (for 3 choirs)
: Pange lingua gloriosi

The brainchild of Seattle Pro Musica’s enterprising conductor, Karen P. Thomas, this absorbing program of mostly sacred works, several of them for multiple choirs, was as impressive in its realization as in its conception. To choreograph the movement of so many choral ensembles around St. James Cathedral’s vast spaces without apparent glitch must be regarded as a considerable achievement.

The choice of music, too, was highly judicious and effective. I say “mostly” sacred because the new work on the program, I Sing of Love, was devotional in a somewhat different sense. Ms. Thomas had commissioned the work from the British composer Bernard Hughes, with the suggestion of combining “texts from the three major monotheistic religions.” His choice eventually settled on a passage from The Song of Solomon, a poem by Rumi, and the famous passage about love from 1 Corinthians 13, so that the “love” of his title could be seen to relate to other spheres as well as the strictly religious one.

Since the 37-year-old Hughes’s work had music by some of the most celebrated composers in several centuries of music history for its company, it is no small praise to say that I found I Sing of Love one of the most attractive pieces on the program. The technique is essentially tonal, happily free from any trace of banality; the style is approachable but not bland; and the piece moves to its expressive climax with a strong sense of inevitability.

Of the other works we heard, Tallis’s 40-voice motet, Spem in alium, naturally commanded the most emphasis in the publicity preceding the program (which was, by the way, given twice). In the event, the promised format of “40 individual voices in eight choirs positioned around the audience” was not to be experienced, the building’s sheer size having apparently militated, at rehearsal, against proper rhythmic coordination. But even with the singers gathered in a circle around the central altar, the work’s stunning sonic and emotional effect fully vindicated the exalted regard in which it is held.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I may add that my favorites among the evening’s works were mostly English ones. Besides those by Tallis and Hughes, they included Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God and Song for Athene (though neither piece attains quite the same lofty peak of inspiration as his deeply moving Funeral Ikos), and the Ave Maria that Holst wrote in his twenties. But Giovanni Gabrieli’s Exultet jam angelica was a delight too, and the Canadian Christine Donkin’s Magnificat made a attractive glass-harmonica-like effect with the 10-part choral accompaniment that creates, as the program-note observed, “a halo of sound” around the plainchant line of the soloist.

Coming back to Karen Thomas, I must conclude by saying that the performances she and her colleagues drew from their varied choral complements maintained a consistent level of technical prowess and sheer beauty. Altogether, this was another of those wonderful musical experiences offered by St. James Cathedral’s superb acoustics, like the performance Stephen Stubbs conducted a year or so back of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, which I am happy to see is to have a repeat airing next season.

Bernard Jacobson