In performance: Washington Early Music Festival (II)
Carmina and Illuminare sing as one
by Joan Reinthaler
Unison singing is the gold standard of choral art. It may sound easy, but there’s nowhere to hide in a unison melodic line. Every bit of faulty intonation, every wobble and every misplaced consonant hangs out there. But unison singing is what the two chamber choruses Carmina, a mixed chorus, and Illuminare, its smaller, all-female sister ensemble, do so well, and the program they brought to St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Friday as part of the Washington Early Music Festival played handsomely to their strengths.
(read more after the jump)
Conductor Vera Kochanowsky and her forces devoted the second half of their program to the 11th/12th-century theologian/philosopher/lover Peter Abelard: readings of some of his letters to and from his adored Heloise as well as singing his “Planctus Virginum Israel” (a setting of the story of the sacrifice of Jeptha’s daughter), and “O Quanta Qualia," the only one of his many hymns to have survived. If the readings dragged some, the unison “Planctus” and the hymn, sung with the serenity of fine chant, seemed timeless. Soprano Rebecca Christie handled the daughter’s lines with accurate simplicity, and women of Illuminare narrated the story with the warm but abstract remove so characteristic of the period. The seamless transition from the “Planctus” to the hymn, sung from the back of the church by the low voices of Carmina, was magical.
It was good to hear the anonymous 14th-century “Mass of Tournai” on the first half of the program, but Kochanowsky might have considered relieving the seriousness of the rest – a Magnificat and the motet “Alma Redemptoris Mater" by Dufay, Lheritier’s “Nigra Sum,” and an Ave Maria by Josquin – with something lighter (Dufay’s canonic Gloria instead of the Magnificat, for instance?). And there were times when the singing, perhaps because of Kochanowsky’s tendency to propel by abrupt upbeats rather than downbeats, seemed lumpy.
-- Joan Reinthaler
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