To contemplate the wonder of creation or to explore the mystery of death, no musical medium matches the human voice, especially massed together in choral ensemble. Patrick Walders and his Pro Arte Voices admirably demonstrated this point in their concert—aptly titled “Beginning to End”—Friday (March 18) in Pacific Beach at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
Walders boldly opened his program with Aaron Copland’s rarely heard 1947 work “In the Beginning,” a 20-minute a cappella tour de force that sets the opening two chapters of Genesis for mixed choir and mezzo-soprano soloist. Like any great story handed down through oral tradition, the Genesis creation myth is full of repeated phrases and stock formulas, yet Copland’s work explodes with boundless melodic and harmonic invention, surprising the listener with shifting textures and consistently engaging interplay between the soloist and the choir.
Mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, who has frequently appeared in solo roles with the Bach Collegium San Diego, caressed Copland’s unpredictable, angular themes with the grace and finesse any verismo opera singer would employ on a sweetly arched Puccini melody. Smucker’s perfectly modulated mezzo began with a darker hue at the bottom, but, as it ascended, it bloomed into a gleaming top that proved irresistible.
From his 28 singers, Walders drew a vibrant, solidly tuned sonority that gave Copland’s muscular writing all the power and drive it needed, especially in the dramatic contrapuntal sections. The choir filled the work’s climax, emphatic chordal iterations of the story’s apex “and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7), with astoundingly rich color and exultation.
Equally unknown as Copland’s “In the Beginning” but more historically remote, Heinrich Schütz’s “Musikalische Exequien” from 1636 sprawled over the program’s longer second half. Historians mark the “Musikalische Exequien” as the first Requiem cast in the vernacular, an understandable change since the 16th-century German Reformer Martin Luther and his followers put all the church’s liturgical language in the vernacular, anticipating Vatican II by a mere 450 years.
As music director for the Saxon court in 17th-century Dresden, Schütz held the most influential post in the Protestant German lands. Some ten years into his tenure in Dresden, however, he realized he needed to catch up with Italy’s latest musical trend—opera—so he received a generous two-year study leave from the Elector of Saxony to work with Claudio Monteverdi in Venice. From that opera-besotted cultural center Schütz brought back to Germany not only the new continuo-based style of composition, but skilled instrumentalists and new instruments to help him establish the Baroque style of German church music that another Saxon, J.S. Bach, would bring to its pinnacle a century later in Leipzig.
Schütz wrote his Requiem for Count Henry II of Gera, ruler of a small city in central Germany where the composer was born, and the Count himself had chosen his own Requiem text—not unusual at that time for a person of such stature—a mixture of liturgical and Biblical selections augmented by poems and theological observations by Luther and his circle. Applying the conventions of Monteverdi’s nascent opera style, Schütz alternated every possible combination of vocal soloist and small ensemble with the choir, held together by the ever-present continuo, expertly realized in this concert by Maria Didur at the positiv organ, cellist Alex Greenbaum, and arch-lute player Jason Yoshida.
Happily, Walders and his Pro Arte Voices kept the pace of this kaleidoscopic work brisk, expressing the depth of its convictions through unceasing vitality of vocal attack and a sure sense of period style. Most of the Requiem’s heavy lifting was done by a dozen of the most experienced choral members, which Walders designated as the Pro Arte Voices Consort, but even these skilled singers occasionally tripped over a complex melisma. Nevertheless, it gave us an exuberant glimpse at a tradition rarely accessed with such strength by American choral groups.
For the Requiem’s closing chorus, an expansion of the biblical text known as the “Song of Simeon,” the entire Pro Arte Voices filled the friendly acoustics of St. Andrew’s Church with praise that managed to sound robust and aetherial at the same time.
Keeping with the program’s theme, Walders premiered “An English Requiem” for choir, piano, and tubular bell by the San Diego composer Martin Chambers. In six short movements, Chambers presented selections of the traditional Latin Requiem text in English translation. Coming after the imposing Copland “In the Beginning,” Chambers’ modest attempt seamed out of place, harmonically unadventurous and plodding along with the kind of bland declamation found in the liturgical sections of Protestant hymnals produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Even the refined choral palette of Pro Arte Voices could not elevate this modest offering.
This performance by the San Diego Pro Arte Voices was presented on March 18, 2016, at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach. It will be repeated at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego on March 19, 2016, at 7:30 p.m. The organization will present Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu Nostri” at the Pacific Beach church on March 22, 2016, at 7:30 p.m.