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Deromanticizing Schubert

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THE CITY MUSICK

at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church

November 18

HIS MAJESTIE'S CLERKES

at Saint Procopius Abbey

December 10

When Academy of Ancient Music founder Christopher Hogwood began performing and recording Mozart symphonies on period instruments in the early 70s, the music community at large thought he had gone crazy. Baroque music on period instruments, they reasoned, made sense as an option because the Baroque era had instruments, which later disappeared, that sounded radically different from their contemporary counterparts. But Mozart? How far would this go? Jokes developed about Mahler symphonies on period instruments, but Hogwood and other early-music enthusiasts weren't laughing. The fact is you could, if you wanted to, put together a historically informed performance of a Mahler symphony--that is, performed on the instruments and in the manner that Mahler himself used in the early part of the century. Whether or not there would be a noticeable, quantifiable difference from what we are used to remains to be seen. But it could be done and no doubt will be.

Who could have imagined that within two decades the period-instrument movement would catch on to the extent that one must justify not incorporating historical principles in a modern performance of early music? And who could have foreseen even Beethoven done on period instruments being taken for granted? That one of the most popular and critically acclaimed recordings of 1989 is Roger Norrington's period-instrument performance of the bombastically Romantic Berlioz Symphonie fantastique speaks volumes about how far the movement has come and where it is heading.

That's why it was particularly gratifying to see the City Musick open its 1989-90 season with a concert of Romantic music on period instruments: the Schubert Symphony no. 5 and the Beethoven Symphony no. 2. How nice to see a Chicago group that is not following in the footsteps of everyone else. Schubert is an obvious composer for the movement to tackle, yet few people have done so. Artistic director Elaine Scott Banks's choice of him was a masterstroke of vision and programming.

I doubt I would feel that way if the performance hadn't been something really special, something that made a powerful statement not only about Schubert but also about City Musick, which, after all, is only four years old this month.

All of Schubert's early symphonies (nos. 1 through 5) were composed while he was a teenager, when he was clearly under the spell of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The earliest symphonies were written for his boarding-school orchestra; the middle symphonies, including the Fifth, were performed by amateur orchestras made up of wealthy Viennese who fancied themselves musicians. The Fifth Symphony, like most of Schubert's work, was never publicly performed during his lifetime.

The orchestra that Schubert wrote the Fifth for was Mozartian in terms of proportion. Hearing it played by such scaled-down forces reveals it--not surprisingly--to be a very different work from what we are used to hearing in the concert hall. It takes some getting used to; at first it sounds beautiful but rather bland compared to standard Romantic interpretations. Soon, however, entirely different details reveal themselves, and it becomes clear that the variety of moods and colors is no smaller than that heard in a Romantic approach--the palette incorporated is simply different.

Textures were very clean and transparent, phrasing stylish, and ensembling polished. But most impressive were Banks's sense of tension and release, her sense of the work's overall architecture, and the restoration of the work's original balance of winds and strings (the winds usually drown in a sea of Romantic string sound in the typical performance). My only caveat is that repeated sections were virtually identical--it's far more interesting to do something a little different the second time. But that didn't mar a very special performance.

City Musick offered its first all-Beethoven program a year ago with mixed results, but by far the most memorable performance on that program was the Symphony no. 1, in which Banks revealed herself to be a masterful Beethoven interpreter. I wish I could report that her performance of the Beethoven Symphony no. 2 was as inspired, but, alas, it was not. Banks's interpretation was as solid as ever in that what she wanted the ensemble to do made great sense (although I found the third movement too slow and lacking the necessary bouncy feel). The problem was that the ensemble couldn't pull off what she envisioned. (Perhaps so much time was spent rehearsing the nearly flawless Schubert that the Beethoven suffered.) There was great excitement, stylish phrasing, and grand climaxes, but also poor intonation, horn flubs, and string and wind pitch problems. The sound was often cluttered, rather than clean. Even so, there were many fine and enjoyable moments.

This concert was City Musick's first at Hyde Park's Saint Thomas the Apostle, a church with extraordinary acoustics; next to Northwestern's Pick-Staiger Hall, it's the best venue I have yet heard the group perform in. Fortunately, the church is now on their regular concert schedule.

Speaking of concert venues, I can't imagine one better for a choral concert than the Saint Procopius Abbey in Lisle. The building, which is stark yet elegant in its simplicity, doubles as the daily liturgical center for the Benedictine monks who make their home there. The acoustics are breathtaking, allowing for perfect balance and resonance, and the monastic context helps transport the listener to another realm.

The abbey was the first venue for His Majestie's Clerkes' presentation of "Christmas in the New World," a concert of unusual early Christmas repertoire from Mexico, South America, the English colonies, and French Canada, spiced with works by a few 20th-century American composers and some spirituals.

The program was not arranged chronologically or geographically, but topically. It began with prophecy and moved on to contemplate various aspects of the Christmas story--the overall effect was of a rich tapestry of musical diversity and religious imagery.

Francisco Guerrero was a Spanish Renaissance composer who was enormously popular in the New World and whose works were frequently performed in the great cathedrals of the Spanish colonies. "Canite tuba in Sion" ("Sound the trumpet in Zion") contains typical prophetic themes--a call for repentance and the assurance of justice and salvation. It was performed in a solemn and slow manner (a bit too slow for my taste), but was nicely layered and balanced.

Two Marian pieces followed. The first, "Beata Dei genitrix" ("Blessed mother of God"), is a hauntingly beautiful unison piece for sopranos and altos (the piece was written for liturgical use by the French Canadian Ursuline sisters), and was done in a lovely, simple French Baroque manner with stylish trills taken by the entire chorus. Julliette Hayes led the ensemble with her firm, beautiful timbre, but tended to be a bit unsteady vocally. The second, Guerrero's "Sanctissima Maria," also taken by the sopranos and altos, is a High Renaissance prayer of praise to the Virgin Mary; it was beautifully sung.

The Nativity was the subject of the next two pieces. Eighteenth-century New England composer William Billings's account of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, "Judea," was beautifully done in grand English style, with far more feeling and a brisker, more convincing tempo than I have heard the Clerkes give it before. Especially effective were the sudden fluctuations of tempo. One of the real gems discovered by director Anne Heider in her search for New World Christmas music is a festive processional piece by Mexican composer Fabian Ximeno, "Ay ay galeguinos" ("Oh, Galileans"), which suffered only in that the music seemed to call out for a much brisker, livelier approach.

Heider described the next two American pieces as reflecting the darker side of Christmas. Both are new pieces for the Clerkes, but the only flaw was that they could not be clearly understood (unfortunately, no original texts were provided in the program, only translations of the non-English texts). "Po' Li'l Jesus" is a spiritual that speaks of the poverty of Jesus and the injustice of his eventual execution, themes black Americans could historically identify with. It was given a nice four-part choral texture in a call-and-response arrangement by Heider, complete with blues cadences--all executed with great subtlety and style. Samuel Barber's "Twelfth Night," written at the end of 1968, is an incredibly bleak piece, full of pessimistic imagery and despair. Barber must have fallen asleep that Christmas Eve, the night we were all given a shot of hope by the Apollo 8 astronauts, who showed us our own planet as seen from their moon orbit, while they read the Genesis account of creation. The work is quite interesting musically, done in motet style with a very dense texture, much chromatic dissonance and harmonic ambiguity, and very tight, close harmonies. It was obviously very difficult to learn, and was very nicely executed, although, again, it was almost impossible to make out the text.

The second half of the program began with the tenors and basses singing in unison one of the Ursuline sisters' French Canadian pieces, "Quem vidistis pastores" ("Whom have you seen, shepherds?"). The solos were nice, but entrances were scattered and the melismatic lines slightly unfocused and overly dramatized. Shepherds were also the subject of Billings's "Shiloh" and Daniel Read's "Sherburne," which were well sung, though the Billings was far too slow and needed much more variation in tempo and dynamics.

The magi were the subject of Tomas Luis de Victoria's glorious motet "Magi viderunt stellam" ("The wise men saw the star"), which was beautifully executed, although the hallelujah that closes the piece lacked a sense of triumph and could have benefited from a tempo increase. Twentieth-century Canadian church composer Healey Willan's "The Three Kings" reflects a contemporary Anglican style; it was effective musically, but the text was nearly impossible to understand.

The concert closed with pieces that meditate on the complete scope and significance of the Christmas mystery: an Ursuline setting of "Magnus Dominus" ("Great is the Lord"), whose simple French style contrasted nicely with the 19th-century shape-note tune "Morning Star"; and the magnificent Renaissance polyphony of the sacred Christmas piece that, outside the choruses of Handel's Messiah, is probably the most famous piece of Christmas choral music, Victoria's "O magnum mysterium" ("O great mystery").

The encore was a choral arrangement of the spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain," done with the exuberance of the season and revealing yet another aspect of Christmas music from the New World. This extraordinary and unusual program will be repeated twice this weekend: Saturday evening at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston, and Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Ascension. I can't think of a more entertaining or more meaningful Christmas concert to attend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gordon Meyer.

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