A concert dominated by sacred choral music has the potential to snooze even the most pious listener, but on December ninth, Erica J. Washburn and the New England Conservatory Chamber Singers presented a compelling, pre-recorded selection of works by Black composers spanning three continents and more than three centuries that is sure to satisfy both heathen and saint. Three works by living composers provoke particular commentary, sharing a common theme of questions and (sometimes) answers.
To open the program, a solo voice chants a pair of questions on a single, stationary pitch: “Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?” As additional singers enter, mirroring the same droning pitch at the octaves above and below, Ysaye M. Barnwell’s “Would You Harbor Me?” induces a trancelike, introspective search for compassion toward marginalized groups and historically persecuted figures in a litany of inquiry. As the drone continues, representing our shared human sameness, the remainder of the ensemble spins forth a slowly swirling circular progression of kaleidoscopic harmonies—sometimes gentle, sometimes dissonant—reflecting the richness and diversity of human experience. Barnwell provides no response to the questions; she ends the composition on an unresolved chord, leaving the resolution to the listener. Though this work is not explicitly sacred, it sets the tone for the rest of the program, emphasizing acceptance and mercy as healthy tenets of spiritual practice.
The text of Jens Ibsen’s “How god comes to the soul,” excerpted from the medieval Christian mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg’s magnum opus Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead), is divided into two sections: “How god comes to the soul” and “How god receives the soul.” Though these section titles are not written with question marks, they imply a question-like curiosity; the sung text serves as a response to those titles. The beginning of the work hearkens back to the hypnotizing, placid nature of the opening piece by Barnwell, but under Ibsen’s pen, eerie, sliding vocal lines provide an answer to the question of how God comes to the soul with the words “I come to my beloved as the dew upon the flowers.” The reply to the second title-question names the human soul as a “precious dove” being welcomed into heaven with lush, expansive harmonies which musically manifest the warm embrace of a loving creator.
B. E. Boykin’s “Consolamini” (Latin for “comfort ye”) presents inquiries of a different nature than the previously-discussed works. Brought to life by undulating melodic interrogation in the middle section, the voice of God asks “Quare mærore consumeris” (Why wilt thou waste away in sadness?) and “Quia innovavit te dolor?” (Why hath sorrow seized thee?). Though these questions are posed to the listener but not answered within the work, God does suggest a response himself—“Salvabo te, noli timere” (Fear not, for I will save thee)—encouraging the listener to trust in the divine for relief from sadness and sorrow. At this moment in the piece, Boykin paints a sound of solace from a colorful palette of soft and soothing sonorities which consolingly embrace the listener.
Of these three highlighted works, “Consolamini” stands most overtly inside the bounds of the Christian tradition, but within the context of this masterfully constructed program, the openheartedness of “Would You Harbor Me?”, the mystical fervor of “How god comes to the soul,” and the varied musical styles of the remaining selections, this concert should leave every listener both musically and spiritually content.