The choirs of St. Paul's Cathedral marked their 25th annual spring concert Sunday evening with a program celebrating music itself. This was "Music in Praise of Music", with various odes to St. Cecilia and anthems devoted to the muse.
Choirmaster Bruce Neswick has done a beautiful job here, both in developing substantial, well-balanced ensembles and giving them varied and challenging music to perform. If there is any reservation in evidence, it is in a certain polished style and coolness of emotion that typifies English choral style, sometimes substituting aural purity for musical passion.
No problem on that count in the opening "A Hymn For St. Cecilia" by Herbert Howells, the Choir of Men and Boys delivering the bold, hearty, organ-underlined unison that later flowers into parts and shoots forth a descant in joyous accompaniment.
The 16th century anthem by Jacob Handl, "Duo Seraphim" was a nice foil, a tactical retreat to close imitative counterpoint with fluid lines and good rhythmic clarity.
The big Purcell work, "O Sing Unto The Lord", was less convincing, not quite synched rhythmically between the various solo, strings and choral sections, coming off a bit rough and unbalanced. The choir ended their section with John Stainer's dramatic "I Saw The Lord" beginning with martial bombast and winding down through word painting to a more delicate fugal finale, very well sung.
The Cathedral Girl's choir made a brief but enjoyable appearance, singing a little carefully but with quite pure unison in the Purcell "Evening Hymn". They gave lovely contrast to the sweet lullaby versus jazzy syncopation elements of Malcolm Williamson's fine "Ode to Music", and made a game try at Daniel Pinkham's "The Call of Isaiah", overpowered by the electronic tape effects, punctuating organ chords and weirdly apocryphal text treatment.
By far the most impressive singing of the evening came with the Men and Boy's Choir performance of Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia". Britten's brilliant treatment of the text by W. H. Auden poses many choral problems. They were wonderfully solved by conductor Neswick and his choristers. The work is a cappella and shifts harmonic gear suddenly and often. The choir maintained the whirlwind tonal shifts well, always shaping the phrase within, whether in the scurrying, brief phrases that mirror the childlike portion of the text, the tonal plateaus of the sing-song refrain or the colorful harmonic feints in orchestral vocal texture. Soloists were accurate and effective in the complex rhythmic stew. The effect produced an intense and dramatic poetic and musical drama.
After that, the Ralph Vaughan-Williams "Serenade to Music" was a true Balm in Gilead, the string quartet and piano playing a particularly sweet accompaniment, the choir negotiating the luscious textures and majestic, if predictable, sweep that is trademark of the British composer.
Accompanying organist and pianist was Brian Carson, with the string quartet comprised of Philharmonic members Robert Prokes, Alan Ross, Leslie Salathe and Nancy Anderson.