Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 31, 2011

Vaughan Williams, Brahms, and Elgar

Berkshire Choral Festival
Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
July 30, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

Two British rarities surrounded the more familiar Brahms Alto Rhapsody in a moving program dedicated to BCF founding executive director Mary Hunting Smith, who died just days after the 2010 season ended last August. It was fittingly led by the ever-youthful Robert Page, who conducted the very first BCF program thirty years ago and has since led more BCF concerts than any other conductor.  

Along with the 60 men and 100 women in the Chorus of the Berkshire Choral Festival, 57 members of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, Page did stellar work throughout the evening. The pleasure of this program was enhanced not only by the excellent performances but by the opportunity to discover at least two little-known works by three major composers, all writing at the height of their powers.

While this radiant 1932 setting of the Magnificat for contralto (mezzo-soprano) soloist, female chorus, and orchestra could only have been written by Vaughan Williams, it also reflects, in the words of program annotator Laura Pritchard, "a modal flavor typical of the French music [he] had studied with Ravel." Through its mostly quiet 15-minute length, the piece featured a lovely repeated solo flute melody that represented the Holy Spirit and earned SSO principal flutist Albert Brouwer a well-deserved solo bow.      

In his 1869 Alto Rhapsody Brahms set a portion of Goethe's poem Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains which describes a young man who has withdrawn from the world after an unhappy love affair, and which may have reflected the composer's unrequited love for Julie Schumann, the daughter of his friends Robert and Clara. The tragic power of Brahms' music and Goethe's text was dramatically conveyed by Pancella and the male chorus members.

Elgar's 1912 setting of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's 1873 ode  The Music Makers expressed both the composer's and the poet's belief that music makers and dreamers of dreams are "the movers and shakers of the world." Quoting several of Elgar's earlier works, especially the Enigma Variations, and featuring contralto and full mixed chorus, the 35-minute piece brought this rewarding program to a poignant close.