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Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum

Jameson Marvin, Conductor

Sanders Theatre, Harvard University

March 13, 2009

Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, under the leadership of Jameson Marvin in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, provided an extremely challenging program at Friday night’s concert, rightly entitled “A Concert of Reverence & Reflection.” The evening’s performance began with Frank Martin’s Messe für zwei vierstimmige Chöre, and concluded with two newer works after the intermission: Michael Schachter’s (‘09) Oseh Shalom Bimromav and Paul Moravec’s (‘80) Songs of Love and War.

It’s hard to have asked for anything more from the chorus and orchestra: the ensemble produced a rich, almost perfectly-blended sound, reminiscent of the Iowan or Minnesotan (perhaps it’s easier to group these as simply Lutheran) choral traditions that welled and washed over the odeum of Sanders Theatre in deeply satisfying ripples. And it’s this sound that was essential for Friday evening’s music. If it’s possible to imagine, Martin’s Messe straddles a space somewhere between Gregorian chant, Bach chorale, Poulenc motet and vocal jazz ensemble. Schachter’s and Moravec’s works took full advantage of the rich string orchestra imitating and augmenting the rich choral texture. The trumpet part in Moravec’s work, in particular, resounded in solemn waves throughout the auditorium. Sumner Thompson too, the baritone soloist for Moravec’s work, deserves special mention. Thompson’s ponderous voice filled the space in a way only the rarest of voices can.

But regardless of the performance, it’s difficult to reconcile the music that was performed with the ensemble. Schachter’s work, interesting in its representation of Hebrew prayer in the more traditional Western tonal world, seemed compositionally unsound. In his own words, the work was “[…]informed by the techniques of such masters as Ockeghem, Schütz and Brahms[…],” and too often felt like just that: a hasty amalgam of student exercises, hopping between imitations of each of these composers with no real synthesis or narrative.

Or Moravec’s work ­— a setting of a collection of written correspondences from various American wars (Vietnam, World War I, World War II and the Civil War) was almost certainly a disservice to the memories of the authors. For instance, Don’t Ask (Vietnam War, 1966), a letter from a soldier asking people back home not to ask about the war, began with a stately trumpet call that, despite how much I would have liked it to echo the pomp and gravity of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, quickly dissolved into something much more like the theme from Star Trek. Or perhaps Always, Always (Civil War) Camp Clark, Washington, July 14, 1861, a touching love letter, that, although moving as a text, acquired the saccharine Broadway twinge of Andrew Lloyd Weber in the hands of Mr. Moravec. The complaint isn’t one of competence or ability, but rather one of cursory understanding and hasty thought. Moravec’s work, by its very raison d’être, should have strived to honor the memory of the texts and their authors instead of using them to pander to the lower emotional needs of his audience.

But even then: what if Moravec had utilized a denser, theme-appropriate musical language?

This was perhaps the problem with Martin’s Messe, a work that is known for its austere, personalized understanding of faith and religion. Frank Martin, after completing the work in 1922, reserved publication until 1963. Martin wrote: “I did not want it to be performed — I considered it — as being a matter between God and myself.” “I felt that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.” And perhaps this, in itself, is an argument for developing a musical maturity prior to performing the work. Certainly, Collegium Musicum performed the piece with a well-trained sense of tone and blend. But melismatic passages lacked line and motivation — mere snapshots of counterpoint. Martin’s tempo markings and dynamic contrasts were barely acknowledged in Marvin’s largely mezzo forte march through the piece. The choir seemed bored with the music.

This is understandable: it takes maturity to be able to perform Martin’s Messe, and it isn’t obvious that a college choir (or many people, for that matter) have developed the understanding necessary to interpret the work. Marvin’s rushed, fairly homogeneous performance of this intensely personal work is evidence of this very fact and begs the question of whether a college choir is even able to perform an entire concert of reverence and reflection on any meaningful level.