The Columbia Pro Cantare greatly dares – and greatly triumphs

November 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

For their October program, the Pro Cantare Singers of Columbia usually present a large scale choral work. In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of hearing them perform the Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, the oratorio Elijah by Mendelssohn, and Requiem masses by Faure, Verdi, and Mozart.

This year, for the season opener this past Saturday night, the Pro Cantare went with an eclectic mix of shorter works, calling the program Fall Festival of Favorites. First up were a motet and a cantata by Bach. This made me very happy, especially since I’ll be missing my monthly pilgrimage to the Bach performance at Christ Lutheran Church in Baltimore. The next date is Sunday November 7, and I have tickets for Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre in the District. (Ah, the trials and tribulations of a Culture Vulture.)

First, Dr. Barbara Renton enlightened us as to what we were about to hear. Dr. Renton is one of the best pre-concert lecturers I’ve heard: lively, witty, and knowledgeable. Her love of the music shone through her graceful words. At one point, she played a few opening measures of one of the Mahler lieder; then she exclaimed, with real yearning in her voice: “I hated to stop that.” Well, of course, Mahler will do that to you. Dr. Renton also wrote the evening’s program notes.

The Bach motet was entitles, “Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied” (BWV 225).  This translates as “Sing to the Lord a New Song.” Here is an excerpt, sung by the Gachinger Kantorei and directed by Helmuth Rilling:

The second piece was “Ich Habe Genug”  – “It Is Enough” (BWV 82).  This cantata for solo voice takes its text  from the gospel of Luke, It has been revealed to the elderly Simeon that before he dies,  he will behold the Messiah. This does indeed come to pass when Mary and Joseph, carrying the infant Jesus, enter the temple where Simeon is waiting. Overjoyed, Simeon takes the child in his arms and exclaims, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”

What a beautiful and moving story.

Our soloist was the dependably wonderful MaryAnn McCormick.

Here is the opening section of the cantata, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

The second part of the evening’s offerings began with five selections from Romanzen und Balladen III by Robert Schumann. These lovely songs were sung a cappella by the Pro Cantare Chamber Singers. Here is “Die Nonne” (The Nun), sung by the choir of the Hochschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt:

In this poignant lyric, a young woman laments her betrayal by the man she loves. As the title indicates, she has retreated to a convent. One wonders what her story is, but one will never know. In the program notes, beneath the title, are the words, “Poet Unknown.” It is a sad but not uncommon story, and it put me in mind of the British folk song “Early One Morning,” sung so memorably by the King’s Singers on one of my all time favorite albums:  .

Next, three selections from the Ruckert Lieder by Gustav Mahler. In her introductory remarks, Dr. Renton explained that Friedrich Ruckert wrote these poems in part to demonstrate that intense lyricism could be conveyed in the German language as well as in Italian and French. Once again, MaryAnn McCormick sang, accompanied on the piano by Alison Matuskey

At the conclusion of the final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have  become lost to the world), my friend Emma leaned over and whispered to me, “I was holding my breath!” I knew what she meant. Mahler’s long, slow melodic lines engender the feeling that time itself is about to stop.

Here is Jessye Norman, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta in this performance from 1989:

Click here for the original German and the English translation of this poem.

Next, another change, and an always welcome one at that: Mozart. First we heard Regina Coeli K. 276. This is Mozart at  his most exuberant. The work is sung here by the Vienna Boys’ Choir; it also features four soloists:

During the applause, Ron and I turned to each other, our eyes shining. This is why we love Mozart, I said, and he agreed.

Then came the beloved Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618. This is the other Mozart: meditative and reverent. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and chorus. The tempo is somewhat eccentric, but the playing and singing are beautiful nonetheless. I find this clip very moving. The performance took place in 1990, in the final year of Bernstein’s life.

Next on the program was Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber. Dr. Renton had told us that we’d recognize the melody: it was  the composer’s famous Adagio for Strings. Ron has always preferred the original string quartet version of this, and we weren’t sure how we’d feel about this reworking for large chorus. In the event, we both thought it sublime. (The next day, I spoke with an acquaintance if mine who sings with the Pro Cantare. She said she was so moved by the beauty of the Agnus Dei that she was hard put not to weep during the singing of it.)

The Agnus Dei is here performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK:

Now there came a pause in the music making, made necessary by the need to rearrange the furniture onstage. This was not the first time this had to be done, but at this particular juncture, there seemed a prodigious amount of work to do. The performance venue has no curtain, so what could we in the audience do but watch the hustle back and forth, the pushing of ranks of chairs and music  stands. Off went an organ;on came a piano! It was a spectacle in and of itself – so much so that at one point, the audience broke into a round of applause for the stage hands. I can state with confidence: that was a first in my concert-going experience.

The evening’s final two selections were both by Barber. First was “I Hear an Army.” The text is a poem by James Joyce that appeared in a 1907 collection entitled Chamber Music. Dr. Renton informs us: “The words of all the poems resonate with Joyce’s own experience as a prize-winning tenor.” Joyce expressed the hope that at least a few of the poems might eventually be set to music.

Baritone Randel Wagner provided a  fine rendition of this propulsive, rather spiky song. (Ron loved it.  “My kind of thing!” he exclaimed in delight.) Here it is, sung by Gerald Finley, with Julius Drake at the piano:

If you watch this video on YouTube, you can read the poster’s comments and the full text off Joyce’s poem.

The evening closed with the lovely “Sure on this Shining Night,” the poem in this case written by James Agee.


The sole disappointment of  the evening was the sparse attendance. In an era when the major symphonies in their opulent downtown venues feature programming that is so predictable it almost seems chosen by rote – here is an organization that presented a program characterized by daring originality. Our musical vocabulary has been greatly enriched by what the Pro Cantare presented Saturday night.

Bravi tutti!


  1. Elladean Brigham said,

    Thank you for those kind and encouraging comments about our Oct. 30 concert! We are so glad you came and enjoyed it! You’re a great supporter!

  2. Alberta Hall said,

    I appreciate your continued support of our performances. I have been singing with the Columbia Pro Cantare since 1977, because singing feeds my spirit. It is always nice to know that somone enjoyed the performance. Thank you for your kind words; they encourage me keep improving.

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