Wild things

Boston Secession, the Takács Quartet and Muzsikás, Russell Sherman
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 24, 2008

BARTÓK CALLING: Somehow all the folk sources got in the way of the Takács Quartet’s performance.

Jane Ring Frank's Boston Secession, which calls itself a "professional choral ensemble," began its 12th season with a short but ambitious program: a Bach motet, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden ("Praise the Lord, all ye nations"), his setting of Psalm 17, the shortest of all the Psalms, and the second of Brahms's two Opus 74 motets, O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf ("O Saviour, tear the heavens open"), little more than 15 minutes of music before the intermission, and then the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's extraordinary 1975 Requiem, only the second time I've heard it done in Boston. (Sarah Caldwell led the American premiere in 1988 as part of her landmark "Making Music Together" Russian festival, with Schnittke present.) The murky, hollow acoustics of Cambridge's First Congregational Church obliterated the clean contrapuntal lines of the Bach, a problem Ring Frank's spirited, if not particularly stylish, conducting couldn't overcome. The warmer, more richly harmonized Brahms was more successful. But the big payoff was the Schnittke.

Schnittke's mother died in 1972, and this large Requiem is a very ecumenical piece, drawing on elements of Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and even Jewish liturgy (Schnittke's father was Jewish) and Baroque and classical forms, as well as film music, pop music, and jazz (electric guitar and bass). It's scary, sometimes like a horror movie. (Could that have been Vincent Price and not Heinrich Christensen playing the shrieking organ?) Its 13 short sections omit the "Libera me" and "Lux æternas" and include a repetition, at the very end, of the opening "Requiem," which was consoling at first in its gentle chiming before turning grimmer and then, finally, resigned. The tone is most consistently one of shock and awe in confronting the mysteries of life and death, with little evidence of joy or celebration, even in the usually exuberant "Sanctus" (here the tenor — the excellent Jason McStoots — floating his voice above deeply reverberant guitar pizzicatos). The "Tuba mirum" has the startling effect of zombie-like repetitions of these opening syllables — tu-ba-mi-rum — as an ostinato undercurrent to the chant of the basses. Schnittke seems to have a horror of the otherworldly.

Ring Frank led a tight, rhythmically alert performance. The chorus here transcended the limitations of the acoustics, and the soloists and instrumentalists seemed fully committed — if anyone more than percussionist Don Holms Jr., perhaps the impressive alto Martin Near, who also played electric bass.

One complaint. The concert offered little more than an hour of music, but there was nearly as much talk. Instead of useful notes about the music, the program book was devoted to lengthy biographies, a list of donors, and ads, so Ring Frank raced through a kind of Music 101 lecture that was both tedious and hard to absorb. Isn't the best place for pre-concert lectures before the concert, and for those who want to listen to them? My hackles rise when musicians regard music as an educational rather than an artistic experience. There were also endless promotional messages about subscriptions and upcoming events, plus a chatty update on the condition of one of the chorus members (she wasn't singing that night because she was "about to pop"). If Boston Secession is the "professional" ensemble it claims to be, it might consider being as professional in its presentations as in its performances.

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