Beach’s Grand Mass Dusted Off, Cut Down, Its Fresh Vision Intact

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The Vancouver Cantata Singers and members of the Allegra Chamber Orchestra gave the Vancouver, and possibly Canadian, premiere of Amy Cheny Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat major at Pacific Spirit United Church. (Photo by Trevor Mangion)

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Cantata Singers and members of the Allegra Chamber Orchestra introduced a major composition written over a century ago to an enthusiastic full house of choral fans April 27 at Pacific Spirit United Church: the Grand Mass in E-flat major by Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944). This is certainly the first time the work has been performed in Vancouver and, in all likelihood, the first time in Canada.

Directors of choral organizations recognize the central importance of what insiders call Big Sings — significant works for choir and orchestra — starting with the granddaddy of them all, Handel’s Messiah. All works on this brief list of sure-fire hits are tonal, and with very few exceptions all date from before the 20th century.

Burgeoning interest in rediscovering and reassessing music written by women provided the impetus to dust off Beach’s Mass, a new edition of which was published in 2018. Could it join the list of popular extended works beloved by audiences and singers alike? VCS artistic director and conductor Paula Kremer thinks it might. In an interview just prior to the concert, she told the Vancouver Sun: “I have had the Beach in mind for quite some time, and am thrilled we are now able to present this fascinating work, filled with charm, drama, exuberance, and sensitivity. It has it all.”

The Vancouver Cantata Singers, an ensemble of 30 to 40 voices founded in 1958, has been a stalwart of the local choral scene ever since. Though it occasionally presents extended works, its stock in trade is smaller compositions, often performed a cappella. Here it joined forces with the newer Allegra Chamber Orchestra, a flexible ensemble of women — some two dozen players on this occasion — founded in 2016 by conductor-violinist Janna Sailor.

Amy Beach

Beach started work on her largest choral work in 1886, shortly after her marriage to Boston doctor and Harvard lecturer Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. She was 18; he was 44. According to the excellent and extensive program notes prepared by University of British Columbia professor emeritus of musicology J. Evan Kreider, Dr. Beach set some limitations on his new bride’s public music-making. But he encouraged her to compose, “for composing was done in the safety of the home,” and “urged his 18-year old bride to compose something more substantial than the music she had been writing for recitals and salons.”

By 1889, the orchestral score was finished and, a year later, a piano vocal score was published. The expansive composition was given its premiere by Boston’s august Handel and Haydn Society in 1892. Although initially well received, this demanding work then languished, apparently unheard for decades. As with her contemporaries Cécile Chaminade and Ethel Smyth, it was easy to marginalize Beach, both as an old-fashioned Victorian Romantic in the era of 20th-century modernism and as a woman.

The combination of chamber orchestra and medium-sized choir is obviously not the grandiose symphonic forces envisioned by Beach, nor anything like the size of the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra in 1890s Boston. Kremer argued that the quality and sheer attractiveness of the work are such that with some judicious adaptations, it could be presented as a grand (by VCS and Allegra standards) post-Covid project, taking advantage of special, one-time-only funding.

A decision was made to re-cue some heavy brass and beef up the somewhat insubstantial organ part. The pragmatic adaptation creates a good balance among vocal soloists, small orchestra, and medium-sized choir, effectively scaled to the Pacific Spirit United Church in Vancouver’s posh Kerrisdale district, long a favorite venue for choirs. This adaptation should certainly win more fans for the work and could serve as a model for other groups wishing to add a worthwhile Big Sing by an important American composer.

Ultimately, Beach’s Mass is an ambitious, serious work from a young composer introducing herself to the world and to posterity. Kramer considers it remarkable: “There are moments of sublime spiritual depth, such as the solo tenor Sanctus statement appearing out of nowhere after an intro on the English horn, or the choice she made of setting the awe of ‘et incarnatus est’ with soprano solo and organ. Throw in a few harp cadenzas, a fugue, a robust Gloria which seems to travel to every key possible, and absolutely delicious writing for orchestra with instrumentation and dialogue between parts — this really is a grand work, indeed. There are moments which feel as if they belong in a Spielberg film soundtrack or the overture of a tragic opera.”

When assessing an unfamiliar work by a relatively unknown composer, it’s always tempting to hunt for influences; in this instance that would be counterproductive. Beach used the musical language of her era with confidence. There is certainly nothing revolutionary about her notions of orchestral color, but her vocabulary of timbres is evocative and in many instances quite striking. The same applies to her highly chromatic harmonic language, especially her fondness for elaborate modulations and unexpected harmonic shifts at important moments.

Vancouver Cantata Singers artistic director and conductor Paula Kremer

Beach employs a conventional quartet of soloists, with much of the best work given to the soprano and tenor. The soprano part, essayed with vigor here by Benila Ninan, is foremost in the Credo; the tenor, on the other hand, has what amounts to a solo aria in the Gradual that sets two Marian texts. It proved so popular when sung by Italo Campanini in the first performance that Beach published it as a stand-alone work. It’s abundantly clear that Beach had rather Italianate sounds in mind, and here tenor Andy Robb rose to the occasion splendidly, as did bass-baritone Peter Alexander in his touching vignette in the Benedictus.

Throughout, the work is frequently sweet but rarely sentimental. Though it is obviously a work designed for the concert hall, Beach — apparently brought up in the Calvinist faith — sets her ancient texts with respect, insight, even individuality. Clearly, she considered their precise meanings. This is no perfunctory recitation of time-worn words. Her orchestra is often used for reflective passages; the choir, on the other hand, is there for drama, and there is plenty of it, including an unexpected but powerful grand pause in the midst of the final section of the Agnus Dei.

Kremer’s quartet of professional soloists, all chosen from the VCS ensemble, balanced nicely and showed obvious commitment to the project. The orchestral playing was uneven, but Beach’s effects were telling. The choir was extremely well schooled in the score and produced thrilling effects. Christina Hutten, playing the adapted organ part on Pacific Spirit’s fine Casavant Frères instrument, chose stops consistent with organ registrations of the late Romantic era, carefully scaling her colors to the size of the sanctuary and the forces on tap.

While purists may object to the notion of adaptations, Kremer employed a fresh version of the score that suited her forces and the performance environment. Of course, it would be edifying to hear the work with full symphony and a mammoth choir, but rather than wait for such a remote possibility, reconsidering the glories of the score in a pragmatic adaptation does great service to the composer and her ambitious vision.