By Roger Emanuels
CHORAL MUSIC from three centuries filled the program of the Santa Cruz Chorale on June 25. Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz was the perfect setting for the concert of Renaissance motets for choir and instruments, conducted by artistic director Christian Grube.
This was a hefty program consisting of composers not heard often. Names such as Jacob Gallus and Lodovico Viadana were new to this listener. Others, such as Andrea Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz are more familiar, but usually only to those who seek out music from that historical period, as they didn’t compose symphonies or string quartets.
Solid performances from the Chorale and the winds and brass of the Monterey Bay Sinfonietta illustrated the significant contribution of 15th century composers to the development of distinct style in European music.
The early Renaissance austere polyphony was represented in the “Festival of the Holy Trinity” by Heinrich Isaac, where several lines of music are combined with little rhythmic variation. That style of music underwent a major development in the hands of composers who created music for use at Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. They discovered that the cavernous space of the church hindered the ability of singers to coordinate their rhythm, and that choirs placed in the lofts found it difficult to sing together. The solution was to accommodate the music to the architecture of the church, giving rise to the antiphonal style, often referred to as polychoral.
Two choirs, each with the standard four parts, alternate with successive and contrasting phrases. The spatial separation of choirs was effectively achieved in this concert by having one choir move to the side of the church, allowing the stereophonic effect to be clearly heard, as in “O magnum mysterium” by Gallus. The singers would then reassemble for the pieces that are not written in the antiphonal style. The ten-piece orchestra of winds and brass also separated to the sides of the church to offer “Jerusalem Gaude” by Gallus in a clean and blending antiphonal performance without voices.
Composers on this program were chosen to illustrate the evolution of style from the 15th to 16th centuries that contributed to many elements of Baroque and Classical music. Antiphonal music probably was the ancestor of the dialog technique found in concerti grossi by Corelli and the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart.
After hearing eight pieces by seven composers who lived in a period of about 1450-1650 and becoming accustomed to the sound of the era, it was quite a change of seasoning to the ear—and refreshing at that—to hear a piece by Benjamin Britten, “Deus in adjutorium meum” (1945), with a chromaticism that sounds like Renaissance music gone awry. That’s when I had to glance at the program to see which century I was hearing. The performance was very effective, though it was interrupted by a fainting choir member, probably due to the temperature and lack of ventilation. Fortunately the chorister was checked by paramedics and found to be uninjured.
The largest work on the program was Mass by Igor Stravinsky, composed between 1944 and 1948. Though he was a devout Orthodox, the work is a setting of the Roman Catholic mass. Created during the composer’s neo-classic period, it pairs very well with Renaissance motets in its austerity. A modest use of a solo vocal quartet appears in one section, calling on soloists Suzanne Duval, Solmaaz Adeli, Jas Cluff and Denis Haskin.
The program was distinctive in both variety and cohesion of composers and historical periods. And even though this is not St. Mark’s, the resonance in Holy Cross Church of a sustained and well-tuned chord sounded glorious. There were many of those moments in this concert.