Alleluias for composers Higdon and Clearfield

POSTED: March 08, 2016

Many alleluias – at turns complex, simple, strange, sad and always intriguing – were heard from Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia in celebratory commissions, both titled “Alleluia,” from two of the city’s best-known composers, Jennifer Higdon and Andrea Clearfield. Titled “Eastern Voices,” the program smartly contextualized them amid unlikely but revelatory bedfellows: Eastern European composers whose names you can’t hope to pronounce.

The common denominator devised by artistic director Paul Rardin on Saturday at the Temple University Performing Arts Center was religious works that weren’t afraid to unhinge themselves from the formality of hymns, often abruptly and in ways you could never predict.

That sense of alternative logic was particularly organic with Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Credo,” which projected the text with straightforward sincerity – until it went into a different harmonic orbit with such purpose you never questioned it for a second. Eriks Esenvalds’ “O Salutaris Hostia” had the chorus singing his own kind of distinctively harmonized hymn juxtaposed against vocal soloists projecting the words with song-like lyricism. Imant Raminsh’s “Ave Verum Corpus” was among the most harmonically lustrous settings of these words I’ve encountered, though right when you thought you’d heard everything the piece had to offer, it jumped to an even more rarefied level.

In the new works (dedicated to retired artistic director Alan Harler), both composers were at their best. Higdon’s “Alleluia” was one of her most canon-based works, full of lacy counterpoint that coalesced into beautiful blocks of chords, aided by her own addition of words about the power of song. Clearfield’s “Alleluia” went against the grain of its title with an entrancing undercurrent of melancholy and even lapsing into tragedy. The piece ended with the choir using precisely honed exhaling rather than singing, with a strong sense of farewell.

Zoltan Kodaly’s “Missa Brevis” was the one familiar piece on the program. Written while the composer was in hiding in World War II, it has isolated good moments, but like so much from this composer, cohesion and other signs of greatness seem just out of reach. Though some performances are brevis-sized, Rardin used a larger choir that suited this concert hall acoustic, with organist Michael Stairs focusing the music’s expressive intent with precisely honed sonorities.

Faced with so many different challenges here, the Mendelssohn Club (conducted mostly by Rardin with appearances by Emily Sung and Ryan Tibbetts) had moments on par with its professional counterparts, sometimes struggled to keep up but always gave more than a basic sense of the piece.

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