Chamber Choir evinces mournful joy

On Friday afternoon at the Williams College Museum of Art, the Chamber Choir performed a concert titled Musical Memorials, performed under the direction of Brad Wells. The featured funeral works were written by Heinrich Schütz and J.S. Bach, two greats of the German Baroque period. Both composers defied the traditional fixed text of a Catholic requiem and built Lutheran musical memorials to convey consolation and joy in the midst of grief.

It was jarring at first to see the concert inside WCMA’s “Landscapes of the Mind” exhibit, but the location was fitting in retrospect – both Schütz and Bach challenge the singers and the audience to think about the interaction between the music and the funeral texts. With Schütz’s “Die mit Tränen säen” and Musikalische Exequien, the choir was tasked to reflect Schütz’s mastery of incorporating musical techniques with the selected text in a manner that enhanced both. Bach’s Actus Tragicus required a youthful performance of the cantata style that foreshadows Bach’s brilliant musical legacy.

“Die mit Tränen säen,” led by student conductor Rob Silversmith ’11, began with a mournful melody, suddenly punctuated by the hope for joy – an idea that recurs in all the pieces performed in this concert, as well as the Brahms’ Requiem, previously performed by the Concert Choir (“Concert Choir humanizes in song,” April 21). The Chamber Choir singers transitioned well between the solemn sections of tears and the fugue that lifted the audience into consolation. The crispness of the singing did not lose power in the melodically challenging fugue. However, the subtle transition in the facial expression of these ideas could have been more explicit, as the key word Freuden (German for “joy”) was not expressed as clearly as the earlier solemnity.

Next, the performance of J.S. Bach’s Actus Tragicus was accompanied by the recorder, viola da gamba, baroque cello and the organ. In the first half, the choir represented the living as they faced death. The balance between the voice and the instruments was precarious at times, masking the intricacies within the composition. The prayer-like tenor solo, sung by guest vocalist Dan Foster, contrasted nicely with the commanding tone of the subsequent bass solo by Chaz Lee ’11, with both urging the living to ponder upon death.

The most glorious moment of Actus Tragicus came when the soprano solo, sung by Kate Yandell ’10, floated above the insistence of the chorus’s “Mortal, you must perish!” to beckon “Come, Lord Jesus!” The final fade to silence by all voices and instruments in this midsection hung the haunting soprano cadence above the poignant pause. The second portion of this work conveyed the experience of death. The alto solo by Marni Jacobs ’12, a quickly rising and falling melody, transitioned into the baritone solo by Silversmith. Finally, the choir reunited for a full-bodied rejoicing in God’s triumph over death, with a lighthearted round of “Amen” to conclude the set.

The final piece, Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, exhibited the composer’s remarkable flexibility to add sophisticated musical elements following speech rhythms in a declamatory style. Musikalische Exequien was written in 1635 for the funeral of Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss who, before his death, had chosen a set of texts for Schütz to incorporate into this tribute.

In the first movement, all of the singers in the group received spotlight in solos or small groups, which worked well in showcasing the talent within the group but showed gaps in blending. Dissonant moments and strange rhythms contrasted to bring out each voice, and the chant-like tenor intonations were especially memorable. The attention to diction and dynamics during this movement heightened the choir’s ability to deliver the message within the music. Following the first movement, the second movement progressed quickly in comparison and ended with a sudden shift in the melody that spoke of the comfort in God.

The third and final movement of Musikalische Exequien was the most bold and innovative moment yet – in compliance with Schütz’s direction to physically set apart two sopranos and a bass (representing two seraphs and the departed), Wells placed this group in a separate connecting room. With the choir singing a completely different text from this subgroup, this decision created the effect of hearing the invisible angels bringing assurance and blessing to those who mourn. As the Chamber Choir displayed this final resolution between the mortals and the heavenly beings, the audience was given the chance to experience and reflect upon the profound wisdom of these exquisite memorial works.