Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 8, 2017

Russian Harmonies

Pioneer Valley Cappella, Northampton, MA
May 6-7, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

For over thirty years the Pioneer Valley Cappella has performed a wide range of classical choral music, from early Renaissance to contemporary. Its Music Director for the past eleven years is Geoffrey Hudson, an Oberlin and New England Conservatory graduate and a composer. Its 25 sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses “range from professional musicians to skilled amateurs,” and they present two concerts annually (fall and spring), each in multiple Valley venues.

The spring 2017 concert featured choral masterpieces by three Russian composers. It opened with the “Three Sacred Hymns” written in 1984 by Alfred Schnittke. In remarks following the performance, Hudson referred to Schittke’s “polystylistic” technique of drawing from many styles to forge a distinctive voice of his own. This difficult music could not have been easy to learn, but the Cappella’s clear enunciation of the Russian texts and the expressive blend of their sound fully conveyed the austere beauty of the “Hail Mary,” the quiet supplication of “Lord Jesus,” and the majestic sweep of the “Our Father.”

Even more rarely heard are the five songs by Cesar Cui that followed, the least known of the “Mighty Five” Russian nationalist composers of the late nineteenth century, including Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Though the least memorable part of the program, the Cappella’s careful intonation and precise diction suggested how the romantic lyricism of these charming songs informed the later styles of Stravinsky and Schnittke, particularly in the lovely “Nocturne” and the dramatic “Two Foes.”  

The Stravinsky piece that concluded the concert was the familiar “Symphony of Psalms,” which Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned in 1930 for the BSO’s 50th anniversary. Brilliantly accompanied by pianists Gregory Hayes and Heather Reichgott, the Cappella highlighted the startling originality of this music with its Latin text, sounding especially radiant in the closing “Laudate Dominum.”

Hudson’s engaging commentaries made up for the lack of program notes, but the original Russian and Latin texts should have been included with the welcome English translations. The acoustics of Amherst’s Grace Episcopal Church on May 6 ideally balanced clarity and reverberation.  Choral music fans should follow this enterprising ensemble.