Pro Coro Canada Conducted by Michael Zaugg and Diego Muniz
All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, January 29, 2017
Philippe de Monte: Missa Ultimi Miei Sospiri
Mendelssohn: from Die Deutsche Liturgie
John Hooper: Sanctus
Jane Berry: Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising (first performance)
Pro Coro have established a tradition of devoting one of their season’s concerts to settings of the Mass Ordinary, and this year their a cappella concert, titled ‘Missae IV’, had particular significance for the 24-strong choir, as it included the premiere of a work by one of their own singers, Jane Berry.
They opened, though, with more historical fare. The late renaissance Flemish composer Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) has been rather eclipsed by more celebrated contemporaries, so this was a rare and welcome opportunity to hear one of his masses, Missa Ultimi Miei Sospiri. He was something of a peripatetic composer, working in Italy and for many years in Cambrai Cathedral in France, and ending up in Prague. A prolific composer (there are some 40 masses), he was well known and respected in his life-time, and perhaps best remembered for his many madrigals.
Missa Ultimi Miei Sospiri is a ‘parody mass’ – that is, the music is based on secular music, here Philippe Verdelot’s madrigal of the same name. This was common practice at the time – a kind of 16th Century sampling – and if some composers based such liturgical works on more boisterous secular fare, De Monte was inclined to the more serious, as here. For Verdelot’s madrigal is a lovely, slow, and short unfolding of voices, and I wondered why Pro Coro didn’t precede the De Monte Mass with it – doing so would surely have interested the audience (even if this was an all-mass concert), and illuminated the Mass.
The Mass itself was rather rugged, and typical of the period – interesting, rather than memorable. This kind of music is almost everyday fare for Pro Coro. So if the balance was at times not completely ideal, and occasionally the blend of voices a little hard, that has to be taken in the context of the very high standards of choral singing they have now reached.
They produced a warmer and rounded sound for three selections from Mendelssohn’s Deutsche Liturgie. Very attractive music it is, especially the opening of No.10 (‘Heilig’), and the antiphonal writing in No.4 (‘Ehre sei Gott’). Here the choir were very ably conducted by a young Brazilian, Diego Muniz, who, among his many other activities as violinist and choral conductor, conducts the main guest choir of São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral. He is taking part in Pro Coro’s enterprising ‘Emerging Conductor’ program.
The second half opened with a Sanctus by the Edmonton composer John Hooper, who was himself once a member of Pro Coro, and whom many will know from his time teaching at Concordia University of Edmonton. Sanctus is short but quite striking, concentrating almost entirely on rhythmic effects, founded on repetitions of syllables and on the overlapping of different rhythms – indeed, the melodic and harmonic material is limited, creating almost a sound-poem until the fugal effects of the Benedictus, and Pro Coro took full advantage of the rather different performance style.
However, the centrepiece of the concert was undoubtedly the premiere of Jane Berry’s Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising, and this was a performance whose impact went far beyond the music-making. The work was written for – and inspired by – her mother, Marilyn Berry. Much of it was written in hospital alongside her mother, who was recovering from being paralyzed, and the music reflects the stages of that recovery. Not only had the choir been aware of this, but many of them – and many in the audience – knew Marilyn Berry, who died last October, so this was understandably an emotive and powerful occasion for both Pro Coro and those listening in All Saints.
The performance, then, was moving, but so was the music, in its own right. This is Berry’s first large-scale work (she’s in the last year of a PhD at the University of Alberta, where she also teaches), and it is indeed substantial, setting the full Mass Ordinary. As she herself indicated in her introductory comments, it has been influenced by the music she has sung in the choir. She referenced Frank Martin, Rheinberger, and Paulus – and to that list I would probably add Ligeti in the opening of the ‘Agnus Dei’ – and she has also included elements from music of particular importance to her mother, notably the spiritual ‘Deep River’ and the opera Carmen.
If that sounds as if the work might be derivative, the results are not, for Berry’s compositional voice is strong and very assured for a composer essentially starting her career. On the one hand, the influences from those composers have been well absorbed into a choral style that one might describe as broadly in the sphere of modern Scandinavian choral writing, layering harmonically, sometimes producing choral columns of sound, and often with dense textures. Into this she weaves moments for solo voices, clearly written with individual Pro Coro singers in mind, so that the opening ‘Kyrie’ starts with wordless low sighs, moving through the chorus, until actual words are sung by solo voices.
On the other hand, she has deliberately allowed echoes of those songs her mother enjoyed to emerge with enough strands that the audience recognises the reference. The really effective ‘Credo’, for example, starts with the repeated syllable ‘cre’, the music and the half-word sounding like the rope-pulling section of a sea-shanty. Gradually the rhythm subtly changes into something more rocking and swinging, and then it has evolved into the habanera rhythm from Carmen – it’s a striking passage.
Overall, the piece appears to have two underlying musical impulses. The first is a kind of rhythmic pulse that is discernable in the first sections of the Mass. It’s often buried in the texture, though is more overt in the ‘ahs’ of the ‘Gloria’, and perhaps reflects the sounds of the medical machinery that was the backdrop to the times Berry sat with her mother in hospital.
The second is choral writing that, in individual sections, gradually gets higher. It’s there in the wonderful soaring writing of the opening ‘Kyrie’, regularly reappears, notably in the ‘Benedictus’, rising to the “Hosannas”, and finally reaches its complete fulfillment in the final ‘Agnus Dei’. The result is that, consciously or unconsciously, the audience have been, through the patterns of rising vocal sounds throughout the mass, prepared for the choral phoenix rising from the ashes of the fire at the end.
I do hope we get a chance to hear this work again: it deserves it, and a performance in less directly emotive circumstances as this concert will, I am sure, confirm the qualities of the piece. And I look forward to hearing what Jane Berry will compose next – it’s wonderful to discover such an assured young Edmonton composer.
Pro Coro’s next concert is on Sunday February 26 (2.30 p.m.), and features Canadian music, with the Montréal-based Quasar Saxophone Quartet as the guest ensemble.