St. Mary Schola shines with “Christmas Pastorale.”
Portland Press Herald, December 9, 2017
St. Mary Schola, the chamber choir and period
instrument group directed by Bruce Fithian, is one of the most finely polished
choirs in Portland,
and the competition is hefty. But even if it weren’t, you would have to admire the care and logic with which its “Christmas Pastorale” programs are built.
Typically an alternation of readings (both antique and
relatively modern) and musical works (from the Medieval through Baroque eras),
tellings of the Christmas story balance the arcane and the familiar, but their real attraction is that they give you other things to ponder as well.
WHAT: St. Mary Schola’s “Christmas Pastorale”
WHERE: St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland
REVIEWED: Friday, Dec. 8
The program will be repeated at the
Church of St. Mary in Falmouth at 4 p.m. Sunday and at the Cathedral of the
in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
This year’s program, which Fithian led on Friday evening at
St. Luke’s Cathedral (there are two more performances at other churches this
looked at writers’ and composers’ responses to the mystical and doctrinal backdrop of Christmas – among them, the virgin birth and the idea
of God taking human form – as well as the more folkloric expansions on the story, including dialogues between shepherds and angels
as they await Jesus’ birth.
Woven through that was a fascinating look at an entirely
different subject – the evolution of English, as traced in several of the
It’s one thing to match texts with musical works that reflect the same sentiments or plot lines, but Fithian went further, choosing antique versions
of texts that we know in more modern forms.
Introducing Josquin des Prez’s magnificently flowing
setting of “In principio erat verbum” (“In the Beginning Was the Word”), for
, Fithian could have used a modern English translation of Josquin’s New Testament source text, the opening sentences of the Gospel of John.
Instead, the reading was drawn from William Wycliffe’s late 14th-century Bible, which reads and sounds differently: The lines we know
as “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” is rendered as
“Alle thingis weren maad bi hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing.”
An even earlier, more Germanic version of English, scarcely
intelligible to modern ears, was heard in an excerpt from the Exeter Book,
dates back to the eighth or ninth centuries and ends with the same praise heard in the Sanctus of the Roman Catholic Mass – a rich example
of which, from Monteverdi’s “Missa in Illo Tempore,” immediately followed.
More conventional English readings came from the King James
Bible, William Dunbar, who straddled the 15th and 16th centuries, the
17th-century poet Robert Herrick and the 19thcentury poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. A French poem, Théophile Gautier’s “Noël,” prefaced
the program’s largest work, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ” (H. 483).
This linguistic sideline also found its way in to the
music: Fithian opened the program with two 15th-century English carols,
“Nowell, Owt of Your Slepe” and “Alleluia: A Newë Work.”
Those pieces also introduced the superb state of the
choir’s beautifully blended, carefully shaped sound, an impression furthered by
Josquin and Monteverdi works, in which Fithian drew an exquisitely silken sound from his singers, and brought a measure of flexibility –
mostly in his use of fluid dynamics, especially at phrase endings – to his interpretations. That flexibility also enlivened later Baroque works,
including Michael Praetorius’ “Resonet in laudibus” and the Charpentier.
The program included some admirable
solo and small ensemble work. Molly Harmon, who sang the expansive Angel’s
John D. Adams, who sang the role of the Ancient One, were the standouts in the Charpentier. Tenor Martin Lescault brought his clear,
powerful tone to “O Seelenparadies,” from Bach’s Cantata No. 172, and was joined by Fithian (who, besides conducting and playing
harpsichord, is a tenor) and countertenor Christopher Garrepy for a smooth, melting account of Dufay’s “Flos Florum.”
Lescault and another tenor, Paul McGovern, and two
sopranos, Christine Letcher and Rachel Keller, gave a lively performance
Gloria from Praetorius’ “Missa Gantz Teudsch,” and Schütz’s “Rorate coeli desuper” was gracefully served by Adams, Letcher
and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen.
The accompanying ensemble, which included several Portland
early music regulars and a few guest players, performed at a
particularly in the Charpentier, in which alternating string and recorder lines kept the instrumental interludes dancing.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: