THE PROMISE was “Music of Downton Abbey.” However, Camerata Singers artistic director John Koza admitted that was something of a ruse. In their Monterey performance Sunday afternoon, he reasoned that British music that predated the era of the popular PBS series—the first decade and a half of the 20th century—qualified. “It might have happened” seemed to discourage no one in the audience.
The result of Koza’s eclectic selection was at least an odd assortment from the late English renaissance to “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and at best a warm, sonorous display of his choir’s best polish and enthusiasm. In equal measure was the program itself, which paraded a repertoire no one present—me in particular—could remember hearing before in this region. I found myself as fascinated by the boldly original Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) as I was disillusioned with the settings by Edward Elgar (1857-1934); the former rose in my estimation while the latter was subpar in comparison to his best work. (Stanford’s influence is powerful, witness his best pupils: Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland and Howells.)
This concert compelled those present to follow the words in the printed program. This mattered more in the early contrapuntal music where the lines of text were often offset from one another, especially Thomas Tomkins’ “When David heard” and Thomas Tallis’ “If ye love me.” Likewise William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” which combined counterpoint and harmony, stood out as one of the finest moments in the day’s performance. Next to it, the Tomkins allowed a moment or two to show how challenging such music can be for any choral ensemble. (In ideal circumstances, the piece would be limited to five voices; the Camerata complement stands at 38.) Hubert Parry’s “I know my soul hath power” setting seemed to expose a fiendish streak with its odd dissonances and rhythmically peculiar rests. His more straightforward setting (with organ) of Psalm 122, “Laetatus sum”—more challenging to sing than its style suggests—has been sung at every royal coronation since Edward VII’s ascendancy in 1902.
The sacred settings then gave way to secular part songs, starting with Arthur Sullivan’s Echos and continuing through four nature-inspired pieces by Elgar. As Koza remarked, they were “dated but charming.” Dated indeed. Almost insipid, which is why Elgar, who died in 1934, is regarded as an Edwardian composer whose music sounds like the end of an earlier era rather than contemporary with his generation. Yet the fifth Elgar piece, Serenade, composed in 1914 to words by 18th century dramatist Vasily Ivanovic Maikov sounded like the ninth number from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (known as Vespers) which was composed the following year. How can that be? It turns out they are both based on Znamenny chant of the Russian Orthodox Church and, as translated from the Russian by Rosa Newmarch, the words constitute a celebration of Christ on earth. Even while it sounded like Rachmaninoff it was the best Elgar piece of the day.
Whether or not Downton Abbey heard this music doesn’t matter; a rich sampler of such rarity, variety and content—even with its ephemera—was a treat for the local ear.