The Choir of King's College Cambridge stopped in Cincinnati, Ohio last week to sing a concert at Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral. Interestingly, this Roman Catholic edifice stands across the street from the Isaac M. Wise temple, which Sinden.org visited and photographed in March 2006.
Web site tangent: The cathedral website looks pretty nice on first blush but contains some pretty glaring errors. Spelling-wise "Calender" and "alter" come to mind. More to the point, I couldn't order my ticket to the concert online, because the order form was not secure
Being the most famous choir of men and boys in the world, it is not surprising that the 1,000-seat cathedral was filled to capacity. What was surprising is that the front half of the cathedral was militantly reserved for cathedral music "patrons". While this was mildly offensive at first, I soon realized that the strict ushers guarding white ribbons dividing the cabin into first-class and coach sections were simply reminding us of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
So, listening from about halfway down the nave in a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Midwestern United States, I heard one of my favorite choirs in person for the first time.
The concert began with Tudor works by Gibbons, Weelkes and Tompkins which were ably, but not memorably sung.
The choir then processed back out leaving Tom Kimber, the junior Organ Scholar to perform Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960). The audience, however, would have none of it -- at least not during the performance. The atmosphere during this first organ piece was one of excited chit-chat before Sunday morning church, and not that of an audience enjoying a performance at $45 a pop. I found this kind of disrespect for the organ performance reprehensible, and I hope that this kind of behavior did not manifest itself on the rest of the choir's tour.
a spoonful of Tudor makes the Messiaen go down
That being said, the Verset is perhaps not the most well known of Messiaen's music (is any of Messiaen's music really well known?), but in a centennial year (noted in the program notes) I think concert goers, especially those moving in ecclesiastical circles could expect to encounter a bit more of his music this year. Even if King's programming of this work skews toward the more "academic" approach, well, why shouldn't it? After all, a spoonful of Tudor makes the Messiaen go down, or it least it should have. Shame on the duplicitous Cincinnati audience, who essentially ignored the performance, and then applauded it heartily.
The choir returned in a Lenten mood to sing a sumptuously evocative "O vos omnes" of Pablo Casals. The peneitential motets of Poulenc, aside from fleeting uncertainties in the opening "Timor et tremor", were remarkable for their powerful dynamic range.
Intermission provided ample opportunity to gawk at another choir in the audience: the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Terrace Park, Ohio. The trebles of that choir were clearly star-struck.
From the opening notes of Bach's motet "Lobet den Herrn", one Terrace Park treble in particular, exhibited what can only be described as a sympathetic bounciness. While he must have felt that the energy of that performance was palpable, the King's trebles at the front of the room were having a harder time feeling the beat. The culprit in this case being the organ, which was consistently behind the beat in this work. At one point toward the end of the first section the trebles, a particularly young looking group, were so confounded by the conflicting beats that they dropped all of their notes for about a bar before being able to recover.
A much more refreshing Bach was then heard from the organ alone: the hearty E-flat Major Prelude performed by Peter Stevens, the senior Organ Scholar. I can only infer that Stevens's elegant performance is a testament to the rigors of his training and daily performance at King's Chapel. The prelude was decidedly accurate and musical, a model of British refinement.
The choir redeemed their unfortunate Bach motet with powerfully resonant renditions of works by British composers. The dense harmonies of the Michael Tippet's Plebs angelica and modern rhetoric of the Britten "Antiphon" proved no match for this truly Anglican choral ensemble. The crowning achievement of this set, and the evening, was Vaughan Williams's visceral "Lord, though hast been our refuge", which sufficiently brought the house down so as to reveal Walton's intimate "Set me as a seal" as an encore.
Throughout the evening, the audience craned their necks en masse at every treble solo, endeavoring to see what innocent, angelic soul had been chosen to produce such sweet sound. It seemed that the neck-craners were, to a man, the same people who couldn't keep their mouths shut for the Messiaen, with one exception.
Remember that bouncy Terrace Park treble? He returned from intermission cradling his new, shrink-wrapped compact disc of Purcell and literally stood up on his pew to see the first treble soloist.
His wide-eyed awe and enthusiasm reminded me that he wasn't just listening to a concert, he was also listening to a tradition, one in which he does his best to take part.
As it turns out, I almost had the best seat in the house.
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