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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

From recent to renaissance: Timeless a cappella

Published: April 16, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

A cappella music is represented by twelve separate student-run groups at Brandeis, but apparently that’s not good enough for the Department of Music. Last Saturday, the Brandeis University Chamber Choir had the sheer audacity to hone in on the a cappella racket, simply because none of the established ensembles perform sixteenth-century French music.

Can you imagine the nerve of some people?

Kidding aside, the Chamber Choir provided a welcome contrast to the rearranged pop songs that we all still enjoy and associate with a cappella at Brandeis. Their show, titled “A Cappella! & MORE!” featured a selection of Renaissance and modern songs from French and English composers. The singing was impeccable; the sixteen-member group is probably the most elite collection of vocal talent that the Department of Music has to offer. The material was generally strong as well, and the program contained a few rarely-heard gems of choral composition.

The first half of the concert was devoted to French composers. Pierre Passereau, Orlando di Lasso and Clement Janequin may not be household names anymore, but, as music printing began to spread in the 1500s, they were among the most influential and well-regarded musicians in Europe. The concert opened with Passereau’s “Il est bel et bon,” a delightful, peppy piece extolling the virtues of a good husband. Di Lasso, probably the most famous Renaissance composer on the program, was represented by the propulsive “Gallans qui par terre” and the short “Bon jour, mon Coeur,” which gave the basses and tenors a chance to shine on their own. The only disappointment was Janequin’s “Toutes les nuits,” a slow song that never really seemed to gel properly.

The Choir wove back and forth among the centuries, alternating Renaissance pieces with more modern fare like compositions by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. Debussy’s “Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin” was one of my favorite works of the evening. Its sound was at once modern and ancient, with thickly textured vocalizations backing the soloist; the lyrics, which describe the composer’s aversion to parties, were humorously cynical. Fauré’s inclusion in the program was something of a mystery. Not only did both of his selections include instrumental accompaniment, but his emotional Romanticism contrasted strongly with the stripped-down philosophies that Debussy and the Renaissance composers shared. However, his pieces “Le Ruisseau” and “Cantique de Jean Racine” were still very enjoyable, with beautiful piano parts played by Leslie Amper.

After a short break, the concert shifted its focus to two English composers. Thomas Weelkes lived from 1576 to 1623 and was known for his vocal compositions and his organ playing. His pieces shared a common theme of pastoral sprightliness, making them a lot of fun to hear. The Choir made “Grace my lovely one, fair beauties” seem to leap from the stage with up-tempo exuberance and “On the plains, fairy trains” created a dance-like rhythm with its call-and-response vocal pattern.

Edward Elgar lived from 1857 to 1934 and composed in a distinctly English late Romantic style. “As torrents in summer” and “The Shower” both featured wonderful harmonies and creative tone painting. But the best performance was the closing “Spanish Serenade,” with Amper again joining the choir for a rhythmic piano part. Based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the song was almost plot-like in its rising and falling, with dramatic releases of tender beauty.

I can’t forget to mention the reception after the concert, which had a great selection of bread, cheeses and baked goods. I’ve often ended my reviews by petitioning readers to attend future Music Department productions; perhaps the promise of food will tempt those who may be on the fence? I know I certainly wouldn’t mind if all post-concert receptions were as well-stocked! But music is, after all, food for the soul, and the Choir alone provided enough nourishment to keep me coming back for more.