The Yale Schola Cantorum gives voice to the last sounds of Christmas

United StatesUnited States Various composers, Sing Lullaby: Yale Schola Cantorum, Carolyn Craig (organ) / David Hill (conductor). The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York, 25.1.2020. (RP)

David Hill © 2020 Yale University

Tallis – Missa Puer natus est nobis: Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Poulenc – Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël
Biebl – ‘Ave Maria’
Ireland – ‘The Holy Boy’
Howells – Three Carol Anthems
Bax – ‘Mater ora filium’
Messiaen – La Nativité du Seigneur: ‘Dieu parmi nous’
Tavener – ‘God is with us’

A month to the day after Christmas, there are few traces of the holiday season to be seen in New York City. The Yale Schola Cantorum, however, brought musical reminders of it to The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola with ‘Sing Lullaby’. The chamber choir is sponsored by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, an interdisciplinary graduate center for the study and practice of sacred music, worship and the related arts, and performs sacred music from the sixteenth century to the present day. It is conducted by David Hill, who was previously chief conductor of the BBC Singers; Masaaki Suzuki is the principal guest conductor.

Open by audition to students from all departments and professional schools across Yale University, the mixed choir specializes in historically informed performance practice. In addition to students pursing degrees in music and liturgical studies, its members are studying a diverse array of subjects: Ethnicity, Race, Migration; Slavic Languages and Literature; Chinese Religion and Government; and, Family Nurse Practitioner. One would be hard-pressed to find professional singers as fine.

Intertwined through a program of twentieth-century music were four movements from Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis. The seven-part mass appears to date from 1554 and may have been written to celebrate the marriage of Queen Mary I of England and King Philip of Spain. From the opening notes, Hill and the Yale School Cantorum impressed with a velvet carpet of sound that reverberated through the church. Individual lines emerged with impressive richness and vibrancy, and the contrapuntal sections were especially distinctive for their clarity.

The simplicity, transparency and dissonances of Poulenc’s Christmas motets contrasted exquisitely with the more sumptuous sounds of the Tallis ‘Gloria’ and Biebl’s ‘Ave Maria’ between which they were sandwiched. It was in the Poulenc that the rich alto sound and the burnished tone of the tenors were heard and enjoyed to the fullest.

There is much to admire in a man who coined the phrase ‘You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing’. Bax was such a person and never succumbed to the lure of folk music as did many of his contemporaries. His setting of ‘Mater ora filium’ from 1921 is considered one of the finest British choral works composed in modern times. The singers masterfully navigated the complex polyphony and the eight-part Amen with a range that spans over three and a half octaves. The sopranos were fearless as they soared about in the stratosphere, including a fortissimo high C that extends for what seems an eternity.

The church’s four-manual organ in the West Gallery was built by Mander Organs of London. Installed in 1993, it is among the largest mechanical action organs ever built in the British Isles, with 68 stops and 92 ranks. Conceived with strong leanings toward the French symphonic style, the instrument is considered one of the most significant organs in North America.

Carolyn Craig, who is working on a degree in organ performance at the Institute of Sacred Music, performed two works that demonstrated the extremes of the instrument’s sonic capabilities. The first, Ireland’s ‘The Holy Boy’, filled the church with shimmering, soft sounds, a prime example of Craig’s refined musical taste displayed in the registrations that she chose for the work.

Blazing cascades of sound dazzled the audience in ‘Dieu parmi nous’ from Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur. It is a wild piece that incorporates the elements for which the French composer is known, including his modes of limited transportation, birdsongs and Hindu rhythms. Craig’s fleet pedal technique impressed in the thundering octaves that conclude the work.

The final work in the concert was Tavener’s ‘God is with us’, the English text of which is drawn from the Orthodox Church’s service of Compline for Christmas Eve. Hill drew a performance from the singers that heightened the singular, austere beauty of Tavener’s music. The piece ends with the repeated proclamation ‘Christ is born!’, each followed by a booming organ fanfare.

As the sounds of the organ faded, one of Tavener’s maxims came to mind: ‘Sell cleverness, buy wonder’. Organist and choir had met this mark admirably, relying more on skill and taste, however, than any tricks of the trade.

Rick Perdian

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