Sunday, February 4, 2018

Two ways of proclaiming in the public square: Symphonic Choir performs Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams

Choral music inherently asserts music's role in addressing our collective will. But composers often seem to enjoy the tension between serving that function and choosing texts focusing on the individual. They hope to speak to the polarity that pulls us toward understanding our private experience as well as what connects us to widely shared traditions.

Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem" display different paths toward achieving such a synthesis of public and private. The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Eric Stark, performed both works with clarifying intensity Saturday evening at Butler University.

It's likely that no greater gathering of musicians has performed onstage in the Schrott Center's short history. The acoustically admirable hall was hard put to allow the large, well-trained chorus to come through consistently against the large instrumental ensemble. This was more to the disadvantage of the Vaughan Williams than the Stravinsky.

Much of that has to do with the characteristic manner each composer exhibits when speaking in the public square. Stravinsky rather severely insisted that music should not be responsible for meeting any listener's emotional needs. Instead, it sets about dealing with musical issues of interest to the composer, and attempts to engage the listener on that plane.

Eric Stark displayed mastery in two much different works.
Vaughan Williams likely would not have denied that, but a piece like "Dona Nobis Pacem," with its variety of sacred and secular texts, reaches out to assert a universal desire for an end to war. Everything is brought to bear on this goal. It's moving enough, but offers no challenge to the audience to meet it halfway. We're there already. The English composer, frankly, might well be charged with often belaboring the obvious, not only in this piece.

Stravinsky rejected criticism of his "Symphony of Psalms" for not rooting their significance in Hebraic origins. The Latin Vulgate texts he chose for setting psalms 38, 39, and 150 emphasize the psalms' relevance to centuries of Christian worship. Universality was not a goal. And in his autobiography, the Russian composer declared his unusual fulfillment of a 1930 Boston Symphony Orchestra commission as a project "with great contrapuntal development" that entailed putting voices and instruments (including a plethora of winds and no violins)  on an equal footing.

Oddly enough, such features made "Symphony of Psalms" more suitable for performance in the Schrott than "Dona Nobis Pacem." But I hasten to add that the juxtaposition of the two works was hugely stimulating, and the preparation of the varied forces yielded often excellent results. It's just that the Vaughan Williams demands a larger arena, partly because its composer clearly wants the voice to dominate. But the gravity of his theme seemed to call for a large orchestra, which ironically threatened to mask the choir. It's definitely conceived as accompaniment, but it readily elbows its way to the front.

The work's effective use of two vocal soloists gave welcome relief from this imbalance, as the accompaniment becomes more subtle. In this performance they were soprano Donata Cucinotta and baritone Philip Lima. Both acquitted themselves well, Lima particularly in an intimate selection from Walt Whitman. After a wobbly initial entrance, Cucinotta settled down and made eloquent her representative role of prayerful requests for peace. (Only a persistent background noise — from lighting or ventilation? — marred the soloists' softer passages.)

Stravinsky's somewhat distant veneration of the psalm texts was underlined by the occasional competition between instrumental and vocal forces. But his interest in emphasizing counterpoint also allows for a wealth of individuality to stand out, especially in the second-movement fugue, to the text of Psalm 39. The poise with which every voice plays its part and knows just when to yield, when to be assertive, was well brought out in this performance.

Truly, Stravinsky — like the Psalmist's God — "hath put a new song in my mouth." It's a song that the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir had well in hand, as did the specially engaged professional orchestra. In the second movement, for instance, after a complicated mix of activity by all concerned, an a cappella plateau opens up before us, and the choir's pitch security held firmly.

Despite Stravinsky's having cast a jaundiced eye at music's ability to express anything, I was moved Saturday to more than admiration by the concluding measures of "Symphony of Psalms." As much as "Dona Nobis Pacem" impressed itself upon me, its tendency toward overstatement had me thinking back to the Psalm 150 magic of "laudate Dominum" and "Alleluia."

In drawing upon a much different cultural and religious tradition and using a conventional string orchestra, Stravinsky just three years before, in the finale ("Apotheosis") of "Apollo," had fashioned a similarly poised, reverent, subdued conclusion. Yet each ending is specific in capturing its respective creed and devotional practice: pagan Greece on the one hand, Christianity on the other.

Universality can be oversold, as comforting as the values associated with it may be. Evoking common values is not irrelevant to music in the public square, but it doesn't have to sweep everything before it. Some will prefer one mode of address to the other. That opportunity for comparison, in addition to the performance quality, is what made this concert exhilarating.