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Schola Cantorum Boston

Fredrick Jodry, Director

St. John the Evangelist, Boston

February 6, 2009

Johannes Ockeghem was writing in the fifteenth century, a time whose musical traditions may already have been lost to the ages. Ockeghem’s music, still a matter of active research and lively debate in terms of its performance and practice, was written in a time that preferred vacuous perfect intervals to plump triads at the close of cadences, when tritones were still considered diabuli in musica, when audiences were still intimately familiar with the melodies of Gregorian chant and plainsong.

Now in its twenty-third year, Schola Cantorum of Boston, a 12-voice vocal ensemble, understood these issues from the first note during a performance of early Renaissance Franco-Flemish composers last Friday evening.

The performance was startling in its conception of sound from the very beginning. The ten-member ensemble produced a surprisingly rich tone devoid of modern notions of vibrato, yet aptly motivated in their interpretation of the arsis and thesis of the early Renaissance’s increasingly complex melodic line. And the venue was surprisingly responsive.

While much early music in Boston is plagued with issues of performance arena (chamber works drown in Gothic churches, motets and anthems fall dead on the stages of Jordan and Symphony Hall, choral performances fail to resonate in lecture halls), the arched ceilings of the St. John the Evangelist sanctuary in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood resonated and amplified the relatively cosmopolitan harmonies and rhythmic structures the composers in the early Renaissance were exploring. It’s somehow not unreasonable to envision the choir and church that informed and shaped the music performed on Friday evening.

Ockeghem made an appearance in the second half of Friday’s concert, first as the focus of Josquin des Prez’s paean on his death in Nymphes des bois “La déploration de Johannes Ockeghem” and second as the man himself in a Requiem, one of the earliest known of its kind (superseded only by Dufay’s lost work of the same genre). Although earlier than Josquin’s work, Ockeghem’s work is significantly more difficult: the Requiem often fragments the choir to illustrate passages in the text, employing two or three voice parts in hair-raising melismatic counterpoint.

Although the acoustics sometimes muddied these interactions in the lower voices, Schola Cantorum’s remarkably blended upper voices gracefully negotiated these labyrinthine passages. What was remarkable was the thoughtful construction of the choral ensemble in sections using all four voices; the ensemble managed exquisite balance in passages employing a huge range of pitches — no small feat in the resonant cavern of the sanctuary.

Ockeghem’s work was in stark contrast with Josquin’s Nymphes des bois. While Ockeghem’s work explored the possibilities of ensembles within the choir, Josquin’s was concerned with the contrapuntal possibilities of the entire choir. And this is precisely how Josquin’s work is strikingly cosmopolitan both in its conception and performance; not only in its integration of old and new (the Gregorian cantus firmus paired with Josquin’s novel thinking on counterpoint), secular and ecclesiastical (the Latin tenor with French text by Molinet entreating none other than Josquin and three of his contemporaries to mourn the loss of their bon père) but in the many stark contrasts in the piece to reflect the poem itself. It’s in this synthesis that Schola Cantorum’s performance was particularly successful — the ensemble’s impeccable blend, made only more smooth and rich in the aptly resonant chapel, allowed Josquin’s work to blossom into its own dire sorrow.

Motets from four of the leading composers mentioned in Josquin’s Nymphes des bois comprised the first half of Friday’s concert. The performance began with two motets (O bone Jesu and Ave Maria) from Loyset Compère and continued with Planxit autem David from Josquin des Prez. Although both were Franco-Flemish composers writing in roughly the same period of time in the same part of the world, the music, given periodic constraints, could not have been more different.

Compère’s motets, unusually combining traditional biblical passages, set the texts in sustained vocal lines. By comparison, Josquin’s lines were florid — individual vocal lines maintained a role in the complex counterpoint but moved in almost giddy melismae that, at times, became lost in the cavernous sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist.

The import of the Renaissance on Franco-Flemish sixteenth-century music compounded throughout the evening: Pierre de la Rue and Antoine Brumel continued the first half of the concert, each augmenting the degree of text painting and affectation in the melodic line. Text painting became more prominent in De la Rue’s Absolon fili mi, a poignantly moving setting of David’s lament after the death of his son, culminating in Antoine Brumel’s jubilant Laudate Dominum (a setting of Psalms 148 and 150).

Friday’s Schola Cantorum Boston performance bore the unmistakable fingerprint of professionalism and academic integrity. Although typographic errors frequently marred the primary texts published in the program, it was undeniable that Schola Cantorum’s performance was informed with an eye towards authenticity and current scholarship on early Renaissance performance. The complete devotion to detail made possible by the considerable talents of the ensemble in addition to Jodry’s scholarship made a potentially bloodless evening of early Renaissance ecclesiastical music into the vibrant, thriving genre it once was and has grown to become.

Having recorded early European and American with the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen as well as on their own releases, Schola Cantorum Boston’s repertoire spans a vast and varied opus of music. The ensemble’s season concludes with a performance of works by Palestrina, Randall Thompson, and Cipriano de Rore on April 17th, 18th and 19th. More information on these performances can be found at http://www.scholacantorumboston.com.