Is Italy ready for the sturdy harmonies and no-nonsense counterpoint of William Billings, the Boston composer who hymned the American Revolution in words borrowed from the King James Bible? Robert Shafer and his 25-voice Washington Chamber Singers will find out in a few days, when they begin a tour of Rome, Florence, Venice and Assisi, bringing along two fuguing tunes by the cranky Yankee as samples of American music, as well as a couple of spirituals and the brief, exquisite "Salve Regina" and "Regina Coeli" of Robert Evett.
Their tour repertoire, which was sung last night at a bon voyage concert in the Crypt Church of the National Shrine, also includes a bit of Brahms, a handful of madrigals, four splendid motets on Gregorian themes by Maurice Durufle' and a few items that should be very familiar in the churches they will visit: a Sanctus by Clemens non Papa and three segments of a mass by Palestrina. If their performance maintains the standard they established last night, they should be welcomed with "vivas" and "bravos."
The Crypt Church, downstairs in the National Shrine, offers a considerably better environment for music than the vast spaces of the main church. The acoustics are lively but manageable with a little care, and Shafer has obviously studied what can be done with them. At the best moments of the concert, which tended to come when the tempo and dynamics were both moderate, the reverberation enriched the sound of the small choir, gave it added body and made it blossom out to fill the available space like sonic perfume.
Other moments were not always quite so successful. In very loud passages or when the tempo gets too brisk, there is some loss of clarity and definition. These problems were fairly infrequent in the church music, much of which was composed for performance by this kind of choir in this kind of space, but the madrigals (sung by a smaller group--about two-thirds of the choir) sometimes lost some of their effect.
Orlando Lasso's "Ich waiss mir ein Meidlein," for example, was taken so slowly that some of its lively spirit was lost in the process. In Gesualdo's "Moro lasso," the reverberant acoustics actually made its paranoid harmonies more effective--though it would have gained from the intimacy of a performance with fewer voices.
Both of the Billings pieces sounded very good, as did the older church music, sung in Latin with no trace of an American accent. There were slight acoustic problems in parts of the Evett and Durufle' works, which have a wider range of tempo and dynamics, but they were not serious. As for the singing itself, problems were small and infrequent: an occasional lapse of pitch and once or twice a tendency for the women's voices to outbalance the men's. Like the other four languages in which they sang, the group's Italian diction is good--perhaps a shade too good in Lasso's "Matona mia cara," which is written in pidgin Italian for comic effect. This performance (like all others that I can remember) focused on the very pretty melody and ignored the shades of badness that the music really demands.