“How many things by season, season’d are to their right praise and true perfection.” That’s Portia’s comment to Nerissa at the opening of the last act of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It’s also the thought to which I kept returning during a Lipscomb University concert by Cappella Nova, the Scottish choir that specializes in early Scottish music. The program featured the Missa “L’Homme Armé” by the 14th-century composer Robert Carver, as well as shorter works by fellow Scots David Peebles and Robert Johnson. The music was rare, the performance nothing less than professional, and it all left me cold.
Perhaps the greatest bar to the evening’s “right praise and true perfection” was the concert venue itself. Lipscomb can only be praised for its commitment to booking some of the finest practitioners of the musical art. Cappella Nova is just the latest in a series of notables such as the Palladian Ensemble, The Anonymous 4, and Malcolm Bilson, all of whom made their first Nashville appearances at Ward Lecture Auditorium. This room, however, is barely acceptable for general music performance, let alone two hours of Renaissance polyphony. If ever there was music that needed the marrying of notes provided by a live acoustical space, it’s the Carver mass. In such a space, the notes take life, they glow, and they flow from one to another. But in Ward Lecture Auditorium, the Carver work sounded as if it were being sung into a cardboard box.
You could sense the performers’ disappointment. For the first half of the mass’s Gloria, they made a conscious effort to reproduce all the vocal tricks that should have made the music work. Attacks were very clean, melismas on individual syllables were done so that no two singers would have to take breaths at the same time, and enunciation was somewhat overprecise. Not a bit of it worked, and by the phrase “Domine Fili unigenite,” everyone was pushing just to get the notes over with. In this the men did somewhat better than the women. The men could sound bluff and heartyeven counter tenors Sandy Chenery and Richard Wyn-Roberts began to stress pulse over other aspects of the music. But for soprano Rebecca Tavener, who was responsible for some of the most florid singing in the Gloria, it was an endless and tedious slog through long passagework.
Not that the Carver work didn’t have its moments of great beauty, mind you. The extended “Amen” that concluded the Gloria, the build and flow of the Sanctus, the clarity of the counterpoint at the phrase “pleni sunt coeli,” and the swagger of the “miserere nobis” were all performed surpassingly well. After the mass’s brilliant final vocalise, Cappella Nova was rewarded with a fully deserved round of exceptional applause. The lasting impression, however, was one of a clever and learned work with “too many notes.”
By the second part of the program, some in the audience were becoming restive. The couple who had brought their toddler to the performance had to beat a hasty retreat, and Ward’s notoriously squeaky seating began to add its counterpoint during Robert Johnson’s “Dum transisset.” Many of the more learned and stylish works in the second half suffered the same problems as the Carver mass, but the program-closing hymn settings in Scots dialect fared much better. These were uncomplicated settings, very much reminiscent of Thomas Tallis’ work for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, and their vigor was in notable contrast to the preciousness of what had gone before. They were the hit of the evening.
“I think the nightingale, if she should sing by day when every goose is cackling, would be thought no better a musician than the wren.” That comment, also by Portia, serves equally well to summarize the Cappella Nova program. There was just so much music here, and, in spite of the excellent program notes, it was music that begged to be put in context. If ever a program should have had the performers demonstrating the particularities of the music, this was it.
These Lipscomb performances are somewhat informalBilson, the Palladian Ensemble, and the St. Louis Brass all enlivened their performances with commentary. Such an illustrated lecture format would have been welcome here. Carver’s mass is titled L’Homme Armé because its rhythmic and melodic elements are based on a tune by that name; how much more interesting the evening would have been if the music had followed some remarks and some examples of how the tune functions throughout the piece. There were two very divergent styles of writing here; how interesting it would have been to have had some explanation of the polyphonic versus hymn styles and some explanation of how these styles reflected the violent social changes of the Reformation.
One final comment. As a foundation of the Churches of Christ, David Lipscomb University must surely have access to a better venue for the performance of a cappella sacred music than Ward Auditorium. This program was presented as a concert of sacred music, and it needed a sense of the sacred. As it was, the seasoning was all wrong. The salt had lost its savor.
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