Friday, December 7, 2012

Contrepoint à quatre voix

Last Sunday I went to a concert at l'Église Saint-Étienne, a church on Avenue Grammont that's right on my bus line and just a few blocks away from where I shop at the natural foods store. I've ridden or walked by the church several times a week since I got to Tours, and even walked around it once, but this was the first time I'd gone in. It's a positively cozy little church; the ceilings are only 40 feet high. It was chilly, though, and no one in the audience seemed to be taking off their coats or scarves. I did not think anyone in the choir would have a problem with getting overheated on stage during the performance. I got a good seat by one of the stone pillars and settled down to study the program, listening to the murmurs of the other arriving audience members punctuated by the double smacks of friends kissing each other hello.

The group Cassiopée was performing, with organist Philippe Bataille. I'd read that the program would feature "motets by Haydn" but didn't realize until I got there that it would be by Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the more well-known Joseph Haydn. I wasn't at all familiar with his works, and looked forward to hearing them. The program listed a handful of antiphons, two sets of motets and a short mass, as well as a transcription of one of the vocal solos from J. Haydn's "Creation" for four-part women's voices. Two solo organ works by Mozart broke up the vocal program. The choir entered and I sat back in my hard wooden seat, pulling my wool coat more snugly around my shoulders, ready to enjoy an evening of music.

As the clear tones of the women's voices echoed up and then back down from the high domed ceiling my first thought was that the acoustics in this place are a vocalist's dream - any choir would sound good here. My second thought: "... until they go out of tune with the organ." All of the singers were in tune with each other, with a good blend and excellent timing, but just under the organ tone. It got worse in the second piece, a repeated unison chant followed by a polyphonic verse; the organist ended up playing the unison line louder and louder with each repeat, trying to pull the voices up to the same level. I'm not talking flat-flat here, not even a half-step off, but rather that quarter-tone interval that makes you do the squinchy-eyed head-rotation thing, like you're trying to use the skin of your forehead to adjust the antennae of each ear separately to somehow blend the two pitches into one pure tone. That's what I found myself doing, anyway.

Fortunately the tuning smoothed out somewhat with the third set, four "homorhythmic motets for three voices." These were really quite charming little works. I found the "Stella Coeli" on this video - it's the second piece (and I liked the first piece on the video too, by Pompeo Cannicari, one of many Italian composers I have never ever heard of). A four-part "Regina Angelorum" was also very nice, and the transcription of "Zu dir, O Herr" also ... charming. Really, that's the word that kept coming to mind. Well-crafted but not earth-shattering melodies and harmonies. There's not much of M. Haydn's vocal music on YouTube but lots of his symphonies, and those are more complex; he wrote as many symphonies as Mozart, and apparently Mozart was an admirer of and influenced by his compositions.

The first Mozart work for organ was nice, and I closed my eyes to mentally follow the harmonic lines. Then I opened them again, restraining the desire to glare around me at other audience members who apparently assumed that because the choir was not on stage this was a sort of intermission, and the fact that the organist was playing a solo work that was clearly marked on the program was of no importance, and so they could whisper all they liked while paying no attention to the background music. The organ had a pleasantly hooty sound; the concert was sponsored by the Friends of the Saint-Étienne Organ, but I didn't see any information about whether they were trying to restore it to a non-hooty state or keep it that way.

I left at intermission. I was getting hungry, and I was cold, and while the organ/voice tuning problem had gotten better I really didn't want to be there if it started to get worse again. I would like to hear the group on a capella pieces, however, and if I'm still here in Tours for the next season might even audition. They were looking for a low alto for this season.


  1. Lotta people just aren't ready for Mike Haydn's avant-garde eighth-tone intervals.

  2. I must have missed that part in music appreciation class.