Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts series presented the latest visit by Sven Edward Olbash, leading his Lacuna Arts Chorale on this occasion. This season Olbash has been dividing his time between preparing concerts and running educational workshops, with occasions for the latter apparently outnumbering those for the former. The program he prepared for last night was a welcome departure from the “seasonal” bill of fare that we come to expect during the month of December, with three quarters of the program devoted to secular madrigals by three different composers from three different eras in music history.
The earliest of these was the English composer Thomas Weelkes with five madrigals from his 1608 collection Ayeres or Phantasticke Spirites, all set for three voices (cantus, tenor, and bassus). The early twentieth century was represented by Reynaldo Hahn with his 1907 collection of six works for three or four voices published under the title Chansons et madrigaux. The most recent selection was Emma Lou Diemer’s collection of three madrigals, each setting a text from a play by William Shakespeare. The Weelkes madrigals were sung a cappella, while both the Hahn and Diemer sets required piano accompaniment, played last night by Daniel Sullivan. By way of contrast, the program began with the four-voice “Dixit Maria” Mass setting by Hans Leo Hassler, the first of a set of eight masses published in 1599 set for four, five, six, or eight voices.
Title page of Hassler’s collection of Mass settings (from IMSLP, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License)
Taken as a whole, the program offered an impressive survey of different approaches to counterpoint, which involved particular variation in the attention given to harmonic progression. There was also considerable diversity in the selections of texts and their respective sources. Nevertheless, the performance itself never really registered with very much impact.
The problem was that execution never rose to the level of attention that had gone into choosing the program selections. Compared with past Lacuna Arts performances, last night’s performance suggested that the vocalists had not yet been adequately prepared. This was even apparent at a visual level, as it seemed like all pairs of eyes were absorbed deeply in their respective part books, showing little awareness of Olbash’s direction or, for that matter, what other singers were doing. As a result, one came away with the impression that, because the performers had not yet mastered the nuts and bolts of the marks on paper, they were not yet it a position to assay the rhetorical diversity of the full scope of the evening’s programming.
Olbash continues to have a stimulating imagination when it comes to preparing repertoire; let’s hope that, at his next public offering, the level of execution is equally stimulating.