I had the pleasure of attending “The Golden Age: Extravagant Renaissance Choral Music,” the Pasadena Master Chorale‘s opening concert of their 2010-11 season on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3. As Artistic Director and Conductor Jeffrey Bernstein described the program, it was the hit parade of the 16th century.
Any of us in the audience who had ever sung with a Madrigal group in our college days recognized the secular fare on the first half. The concert opened with two sprightly numbers: “Fa Una Canzone” by Orazio Vecchi, followed by Thomas Morley”s “Sing We and Chant It,” both examples of madrigals whose meters shift between two and three. The second set were four madrigals which were stunning examples of text painting: “Fair Phyllis” by John Farmer, “April Is in My Mistress’s Face” by Thomas Weelkes, and “Si Ch’io Verrei Morire” and “Ecco Mormorar L’Onde” both by Monteverdi. The Monteverdi madrigals in particular demonstrated a daring use of dissonance to underscore the intentions of the text.
Two sacred motets followed, exemplary of composers who were considered masters at the rise of the Renaissance and its apex: Josquin Desprez and Palestrina respectively. The soaring counterpoint of Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” was performed seamlessly by the 20-voice ensemble. Maestro Bernstein explained Josquin’s “Ave Maria” was the first piece to be published by Petruccio (the inventor of moveable type for music), revealing the esteem in which his contemporaries held Josquin’s output. The first half closed with two of the most emotionally charged works of the century: “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons, and “When David Heard That Absalom Was Slain” by Weelkes. The first sets the bittersweet poem about the death of a swan who only finds her voice in death. Would that the human race followed her example! The Weelkes motet is a poignant setting of the Biblical text depicting King David’s grief at the death of his rebellious son Absalom.
For the second half of the program, Bernstein selected a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei from four different mass settings, a charming way of both presenting the Ordinary of the Mass and presenting a sampling of three different composers. The Kyrie was Palestrina’s six-part setting from “Pope Marcellus Mass.” The Gloria was from William Byrd’s “Mass for Four Voices,” followed by the Sanctus from Josquin’s masterpiece, “Missa Pange Lingua.” Agnus Dei from Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices” concluded the program.
This select group of 20 voices from the Pasadena Master Chorale who performed this program stands in mixed formation. While I never could pick out individual voices, I would not describe their sound as a “perfect blend,” which implies a uniform, white sound. On the contrary, when this ensemble sings, they achieve a sound that shimmers, that sparkles with vibrancy and enthusiasm. I encourage you to visit their website and mark your calendar with their remaining season, which includes a holiday program, Mozart’s Requiem, and Brahms’ Requiem, to mention some highlights. Visit www.pasadenamasterchorale.org.