This afternoon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sven Edward Olbash led the vocalists of his Lacuna Arts Ensemble in a holiday concert entitled A Winter Voyage. The voyage involved a rather distinctive approach to metaphor, beginning with winter as the time of death and gradually progressing to music for the midnight Mass celebration of Christmas as a holiday of birth. For the most part the program presented the music of French composers from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The only two exceptions came from two twentieth-century compositions, one by Paul Hindemith and the other by John Corigliano. However, the Hindemith selection was a setting of “En hiver” (in winter) one of the texts that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in French, while the Corigliano piece was a setting of Richard Wilbur’s English translation of the poem “L’invitation au Voyage” (invitation to the voyage) from Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (flowers of evil).
The scope of this program is best appreciated by a chronological ordering of the composers (by the year of their birth):
- Charles de Courbes (around 1580–1628)
- Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704)
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
- Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
- Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
- John Corigliano (b. 1938)
While the logic of Olbash’s “voyage” was not always clear from his selection of specific songs, the program still provided a vivid account of just how different these eight composers were. Particularly striking was the contrast between de Courbes' double chorus setting of a responsive reading of Psalm 130 in French, “Du profound des maux” (out of the depths), and Poulenc's lush harmonies behind austere readings of the texts for two Christmas motets, “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery) and “Hodie Christus natus est” (today Christ is born).
However, the major work of the program was Charpentier’s setting of the Christmas midnight Mass. This included the instrumental support of a string quartet (violinists Natalie Carducci and Sarah Wood, violist Andrew Strauss, and cellist Amy Brodo), two recorders (Frances Blaker and Marion Rubinstein), and Olbash conducting from the console of the church’s pipe organ. The performance also featured vocal solo work by sopranos Elsa Nicol and Lisa Sargent, mezzo Kristen Brown, tenor Michael Alcorn, and bass Asher Davison.
One is quickly struck by the song-like quality of Charpentier’s thematic material. This may be due to his studies with Giacomo Carissimi at a time when Italian musicians were moving to prefer accompanied melody to the opacity of counterpoint in large numbers of voices. (One should remember that Martin Luther also believed that the congregation would be more likely to sing their hymns if the themes emerged from familiar tunes.) One consequence was that there was not considerable diversity across Charpentier’s mass movements, but there was a clear sense that the music was there to convey the recitation of the Latin text.
The overall result was a concert that was generally low-key in nature. However, if the offerings tended to be modest, they were the more intimate for their modesty. My only misgiving is that, because this was very much a program of vocal music in the service of text, the authors of those texts (when known) should have been acknowledged (as well as the translator in Corigliano’s case). On the other hand space was limited on the single-sheet program handed out to the audience; and it was definitely useful to have English versions of all of the texts that were being sung.