Opus 7 celebrates Christmas at St. James

By: R.M. Campbell

Opus 7, one of the most esteemed musical groups anywhere, has little interest in musical trinkets of the season, at least this year. At its annual Christmas concert Sunday night at St James Cathedral, the vocal ensemble looked to Mendelssohn as well as Einojuhani Rautavaara and Georg Schumann instead. All proved to be fascinating.

Generally devoted to new music of the area, Opus 7’s founding artistic director Loren Ponten chose to complete the group’s Mendelssohn cycle this past weekend with two works, separated by nearly a decade: “Magnificat,” composed at the remarkable age of 13, and “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven on High”). Not all of the composer’s vocal music, or his instrumental music for that matter, has received the notice it deserves. The “Magnificat” is a piece of striking proportions, with its quartet of vocal soloists, an orchestra and chorus. As a piece of music, rarely performed, it has many attractive attributes, including the astonishing youth of the composer. The group’s reading was variable in its effects. “Von Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven on High”) was on a more even keel and thus ultimately more satisfying.

As a result of its unique political history and the importance of Jean Sibelius in its national life, the country provides extraordinary support to music, beginning with education and extending to the professional stage. As a result it has produced a huge number of the some of leading musicians in the world. Rautavaara is among them. “Canticum Mariae Virginis” is a shimmering piece of music that evokes the Virgin Mary. It moves in wondrous and sometimes strange ways, suggesting the old and the new but always with its own language. It is here that Opus 7 was at its best, not only because ot its well-trained ears and musical talent, but its long association with modern music. For many groups, the Rautvaara would hold many terrors. Not Opus 7, or so it appeared. 

Georg Schumann, whose dates are 1866-1952, is neither as famous as his predecessor nor related to Robert. He was a German conductor, composer and teacher who succeeded Max Bruch as head of the Academy of Arts in Berlin His “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her” (“From Heaven I Come to You”) represents the summit of his choral writing, according to the program notes of John Muehleisen, composer-in-residence for Opus 7. Certainly Opus 7 treated the work as such with careful balances, textural clarity and an assured sense of the urgency of the text. 

Ponten is a conductor of intelligence and musical adaptability, not to mention ambition and hard work. The soloists for the night were excellent: soprano Lisa Ponten, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld, bass Norman Smith and baritone Ben Grover.

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