Chantry's Nativity-Themed Program Is Well Shepherded

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chantry, a 16-voice chamber ensemble, and the even smaller Orchestra of the 17th Century collaborated on a Christmas program of elegant distinction at St. Mary Mother of God Church Saturday evening.

Half the program was devoted to Palestrina's "Hodie Christus Natus Est" Mass setting and the other half to the wonderful Schuetz Christmas oratorio, "Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi." Together, they projected a message of mystery and joy from an age steeped in such.

The Palestrina is a "parody" Mass, a piece based on a preexisting work -- in this case, his own "Hodie Christus Natus Est" motet. It and the Mass are scored for two antiphonal choruses -- one of high and the other of low voices. To highlight the connection between the Mass and its namesake, conductor David Taylor had his forces perform the motet before and after the Mass. He also inserted a number of short organ works by a Palestrina contemporary, Claudio Merulo, into the slots where, in a church service, there would have been prayers and responses.

The performances were beautifully balanced, the textures clear and transparent and the texts inflected gracefully and naturally. Taylor's inclinations run to understatement, so there was not a lot of dramatic emphasis in the unrolling of the "Credo" or the "Agnus Dei," but that was made up for in musical flow. It was a happy trade-off.

The lives of Palestrina and Schuetz might have overlapped by nine years, but their music represents two different ages altogether: Palestrina is of the high Renaissance, and Schuetz is of the high baroque. The square-cut choruses of the Schuetz oratorio and the triumphant personality of the angel, the enthusiasm of the Wise Men and the pompousness of the priests are the stuff of opera. The orchestration added to this focus on personalities with trombones (or sackbuts) accompanying the priests; flutes, the shepherds; and trumpets, Herod. Tenor Scott Williamson was a fine narrative Evangelist, and soprano Susan Vaules Lin was a lyrical angel.

The logistics that are required to get small groups of shepherds and the like in place to sing interrupted the natural flow from scene to scene, but otherwise the pacing was comfortably sprightly.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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