Choral Arts at St. Mark’s Cathedral

A large part of the most beautiful and inspiring choral music ever written in the West is religious. There’s also some poetically banal and musically dreadful stuff in this genre, too.

Fortunately, Choral Arts chose five works from the first category for its concert at St. Mark’s Cathedral Friday night, spanning something over 200 years from Bach to Hugo Distler whose identically titled works, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, ”bracketed the performance. In the middle came three composers from the romantic era: contemporaries Bruckner, Brahms and Josef Rheinberger.

Unfortunately, from my seat half way down on the right, the Bach suffered mightily from St. Mark’s spotty acoustics, and perhaps from the lack of a shell to focus the sound. Why didn’t Choral Arts use one?

Bach’s cantata is for double choir, one to the left, one to the right, and begins with a great chorus full of intricate runs. Artistic director Robert Bode encouraged the performers to sing it quite softly. The result, extremely disappointing to this listener, was that much of the detail was blurred or completely inaudible, particularly the runs. Also I could hear the left-hand choir more closely, with more attack, than the right-hand one which sounded far away. At times I could see sections singing but not hear them. I could also not hear the harpsichord, situated on that side, at all, though the other instruments, organ, theorbo and viola da gamba came through.

The rest of the Bach was more successful though still with the distracting dichotomy between the choirs.

The romantic works fared better. Bruckner, whose symphonies are known for their often rambling length, was represented by a rich and focused motet, “Os justi meditabitur sapientiam,” while a pair of Brahms’ motets, “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” and “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz,” carried the composer’s characteristic cheerful warmth. Rheinberger’s fine “Cantus Missae” suited the cathedral best, and here it was most possible to hear the quality of Choral Arts which has long had a reputation for being one of the best choirs in the Northwest.

Choral Arts’ 33 singers maintain a tone with well-controlled vibrato resulting in clear, pure musical lines and harmonies, and its rich, clean quality and blend of carefully chosen voices make for a well integrated whole. However, as well as the upset balance on Friday, I could not hear much in the way of words. It would have been helpful to have included the original text beside the translation.

Lastly, in totally different style, Choral Arts brought out the vitality in Distler’s “Singet dem Herrn” with its decisive, almost jumpy rhythm.

The group is again in residence at St. Mark’s this season. It’s well worth hearing, but I hope it will use a shell next time, or perhaps, sing from the organ loft?

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