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Early Music Festival: Palestrina Choir

The choral world of Washington, D.C., is sometimes like Bill Murray's experience in Groundhog Day: you have the sensation of seeing the same people again and again. This happened Saturday night at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill (not at "St. John's," as Claire Marie Blaustein wrote in her review for the Washington Post yesterday—twice), when I heard the Palestrina Choir sing an all-Victoria program as part of the Washington Early Music Festival. Singers in this group also perform with the Washington Bach Consort, Chantry (whom I heard last weekend, including the poor bass who has to sit in a chair to the side, for health reasons, I assume, while his colleagues stand), and other groups around the city. Michael Harrison's idea in founding this group was to present concerts of Renaissance polyphony, especially including works by their namesake, with a small consort of singers (three to a part), likely the manner in which this music was often performed, depending on the circumstances.

The advantages of this arrangement are evident in intonation and sense of ensemble sound. There is a risk, however, for if just one singer is indisposed for some reason, your sound can become unbalanced. This is what happened Saturday night because, by my reckoning, the Palestrina Choir was missing one tenor (only two of the three listed in the program were there, although Ms. Blaustein somehow counted "12 unaccompanied singers strong" in the Post), and that section's sound suffered slightly, in spite of the valiant effort of the two men present. Even so, the group presented an exceptional sound, well tuned, carefully crafted by Harrison like sculpture, a balance of round and sharp, dark and light, weighty and willowy. He has a soprano section (Joellen Brassfield, Susan Vaules Lin, and Clare Michaud) that would be the envy of any choir in Washington, who make together the most potent, unified, blade-like sound (necessary in this repertory, in which the highest part is at times quite spatially separated from the lower parts). The danger of a program consisting of nothing but Renaissance polyphony is monotony, but that was not a concern here.

Tomás Luis de Victoria grew up in Ávila, the Spanish town that was home to, among other religious institutions, the Carmelite Monasterio de la Encarnación. In that convent, a nun named Teresa began to have some strange visions, a few years after Victoria was born. (According to Robert Stevenson, Victoria went to a Jesuit school called S. Gil, where St. Teresa's nephews were also students.) From that city's cathedral, where he was a choirboy (an important training ground for many great composers, as I wrote in my review of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir in April) and then adult singer, Victoria went to Rome and absorbed the style of Palestrina. He came back to Spain to lead a long and successful career. His Masses and motets were copied by hand (some were published) and carried to most churches in Iberia and all the way to the colonial possessions in the New World. Of the incredible range of his compositional corpus, only a handful of chestnuts receive regular performance now. (The National Shrine Choir recorded two major and lesser-known works on our 2004 recording.)

The audience did not applaud between selections at this concert, which can have a strange effect on performers (I know, having experienced this as a choral singer). The punctuation of applause gives you a chance to breathe, relax, clear your throat. It may not fully explain the very minor problems in the choir's sound, but it did mean that the whole program took not much more than an hour to perform, not counting the solid intermission. The first half offered a selection of motets, all taken from the composer's first publication (Motecta, 1572), issued when he was 24. As Harrison relates in his program notes, "This is not quite the level of precocity we find in Mozart or Mendelssohn, but the achievement is very impressive nevertheless." There were several old favorites here, familiar to me and just about anyone else who has sung in a Catholic church choir, like Ne timeas, Maria (Advent), the responsory setting O vos omnes (Holy Saturday), and O quam gloriosum (All Saints Day). The latter piece concluded the first half on a big, strong sound (not easy, I know), with the imitative entrances on the tortuous, chromatic theme literally "following the Lamb wherever he goes" (sequuntur agnum quocumque ierit).

The choir gave a particularly gorgeous rendition of Vere languores nostros, especially the simple homophonic chords at the poetic words in honor of the cross (Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulcia ferens pondera, or Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, bearing so sweet a burden). I was happy to get to know a few unfamiliar motets, like the Immaculate Conception motet Quam pulchri sunt, with its sexy text from Song of Songs (Collum tuum sicut turris eburnea, or Your neck is like a tower of ivory). There were two sanctorale motets, too, Doctor bonus for St. Andrew (November 30) and O decus apostolicum for St. Thomas (July 3). The second half was devoted to four of Victoria's excellent hymn settings (a complete cycle published in 1581). Victoria did not set the odd-numbered verses as polyphony, leaving them to be performed in their original chant version. This was the weak suit of the Palestrina Choir, because the chant was flaccid and lifeless as sung by the men, although it did give us the chance to hear Michael Harrison's voice, because he sang the brief intonations. One last motet, the most famous, to be sure, was our encore, a new approach to the Christmas motet O magnum mysterium, in which the group trailed off to the cadence at jacentem in praesepio ([the child] lying in a manger) in a great wave of sweet sound, like the end of a lullaby.

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