Chorale reinterprets French sacred music

Friday night at 7:30 p.m., students and staff of the College as well as members of the Williamstown community fought their way through the quickly accumulating snow to show their support for the Northern Berkshire Chorale at its winter concert in Thompson Memorial Chapel. Founded in 2001 by community members who shared a love for choral music and performing, the Northern Berkshire Chorale is a mixed-voice adult choir which, under the direction of Conductor Andrea Goodman, performs twice a year. In this particular concert, the group chose to focus almost exclusively on French sacred music – however, the chorale still managed to create a wide variety in its repertoire within this theme, earning the crowd’s applause throughout the night with their talent for creating music that was both refined and engaging.

The first two pieces set a beautiful, somewhat reflective tone for the rest of the concert. “Ubi Caritas” (translation: “where there is charity”) was short and sweet, the quiet voices of the group echoing warmly throughout the chapel. And in “Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11,” the first of three pieces by Gabriel Faure to be performed that night, a demure piano intro led into a gradual swell of low bass and tenor voices. The even, measured tempo of the piece conveyed a soothing quality despite the eventual climax of sound.

Of course, not all of the Northern Berkshire Chorale’s pieces had this same warm, relaxing quality. After three songs, the group chose to perform several movements from Messe Solennelle by Jean Langlais. As Langlais often writes with the subtle influences of cathedral music, his pieces typically require two organists: one to play the large organ along the walls of the church and another to play a smaller organ by the steps beneath the altar. Since the chorale only had one organist, however, Edward Lawrence, minister of music at the First Congregational Church, chose to tackle the difficult (though not impossible) task of playing both pieces at once. As the piece began, the organ alternated between a heavy-handed minor key and a sweeter, quieter line. As the chorale itself entered, the piece became discordant and strange, the minor melodies in the organ beginning to clash with the voices of the singers, producing a chaotic, slightly unnerving melody that was a far cry from the lighter, more angelic tones of earlier songs.

In a concert largely dedicated to French sacred melodies, it was inevitable that there would be some small redundancies in musical style or tone. However, the Northern Berkshire Chorale also included several non-religious pieces, which introduced further variety and interest to the night. “Pavane” by Faure, for example, which was performed midway through the concert, was composed based on the 16th-century courtly dance of the same name. Both measured and lilting, the flowing piano interludes and gradual crescendo and decrescendo of the piece gave “Pavane” a haunting, romantic quality as the chorale sang (in translation), “And it’s always the same / and will always be the same / first we love ourselves / then we hate ourselves.”

In choosing to perform “The Madrigal” by Faure, the chorale also showcased a wry sense of humor. In the song, which Faure somewhat ironically wrote for a friend as a wedding present, the young men and women of the world bicker and exchange harsh words (“Inhuman women, who without pity / you mock all of our cares / love when you are loved”) before they themselves are chastised by the older and wiser men and women (“Know, unfaithful lovers / that love comes only once!”). Despite the somewhat harsh, discordant nature of the lyrics, the Northern Berkshire Chorale surprised the audience with a rendition that was unusually sweet and light, with soprano and bass taking turns with the melody before weaving gently together at the piece’s conclusion.

In the final song of the night, the group reestablished its focus on sacred style with a piece entitled “Requiem” which, according to Goodman, was meant to describe “the anguish of man reflecting on the last ending.” Despite the somber lyrics, the piece still had a floating, otherworldly quality, the quiet rippling of piano keys in the background evoking an image of flowing water as the chorale brought the concert to a delicate conclusion. While French sacred music may not be for everyone, this performance could have been: The Northern Berkshire Chorale made it accessible and engaging, capturing the interest and imagination of its audience.

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