Reviews ...

Polymnia brings beauty of music and setting to Melrose

... performance of Cherubini Requiem

by Jackie Wattenberg

Melrose - Polymnia Choral Society and its new young conductor, Murray Kidd, elated an audience Sunday, March 9, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church with an enthralling performance of Cherubini’s “Requiem in C.”

Never has this chorus sounded better — stronger in tone, balanced nicely, each section — even the small tenor section — assured. The reverence of the stunning Cherubini Mass was enhanced by the gorgeous glass windows of St. Mary’s in the afternoon glow. It was a wise decision to schedule the program for afternoon, so the lustrous reds and fluorescent blues of the windows could be enjoyed.

Another splendor of the program was the group of instruments that complemented the chorus, led by concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill: Leslie Amper, organ; Jodi Hagen, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Jennifer Tanzer, violin; Nancy Hair, cello; and Nancy Kidd, double bass.

This mass is not so frequently performed as masses of Mozart, Bach or Mendelssohn, but it is rich in drama, depths of harmonious elegance, engrossing themes and even unexpected modulations and subtle turns of melody. This was the major portion of Sunday’s concert, which began with early American songs from the same century, the 1700s. The program’s title was “The Romantic Revolution: Music from Two Historic Periods, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.”

The program’s colorful notes describe how Italian Cherubini was the star of musical Paris, called by Beethoven “the greatest living composer,” the requiem being performed at Beethoven’s memorial service. Cherubini was also praised by Schumann, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner, yet his musical stature faded. However, his works for piano, harpsichord, string quartets and his sacred music are not unknown, though his operas are seldom heard.

Polymnia’s program printed the words of each section of the mass, in both Latin and English, the sequence being the longest and most varied. There are no solos in this requiem; its power totally in the choral strength in expressing the beauty and variety of each section, beautifully realized here by conductor and chorus. The serious opening Introit and Kyrie immediately took hold of us, it’s beauty of line and fervent dedication to its message rendered by this chorus at its best, sopranos creating the voices always in lovely pianissimo or full tones. The Sanctus brought lively energy, the Offertory sequences of integrated counterpoint and the basses’ determined participation. Always a bit surprising were the chromatic progressions that injected dramatic impact.

The short piece that prefaced the requiem was the lovely “Ave Verum” by Mozart, done with soft dignity by the chorus.

There was a fair-sized audience, but the church should have been full to appreciate this performance. We can only hope that some other venue be found to perform it again.

There were just five early American songs in the program’s opening half, light and cheery songs by New England composers, William Billings, Supply Belcher and a couple of traditional tunes. Really notable was the solo by Eileen Christiansen whose soprano tones soared with opulent clarity and beauty; with her, but less featured, were Steve Francis and Michael Harris.

Fascinating program notes about these composers detail how they developed the then-neglected art of music, mostly in singing, Billings being a boorish slob! However, he was a major influence, famed, but finally being buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave in Boston Common. All of these short songs were lively and given straight-forward performances. “Down in the Valley to Pray,” a traditional song arranged by Michael Petterson, had a nicely distinctive start by the women’s voices, with a fine solo by alto soloist Liz Donaldson.

Polymnia was at its best, and all who chose to attend this concert heard great music beautifully performed.

Jackie Wattenberg is a Melrose resident and is the arts correspondent for the Free Press.

Reprinted, with permission from the Melrose Free Press, March 13, 2008

April 4, 2008

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