St. Mary Schola, the very fine choir and accompanying ensemble directed by Bruce Fithian, offered the first performance of its Christmas program, “Natus est,” on Sunday afternoon at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, where the group was founded in 2008.

It seemed a reasonable idea to hear the group on its home turf, having heard it several times last season at churches in Portland, and apparently a good many others had the same idea: The relatively small chapel was solidly packed.

In truth, though Fithian spoke enthusiastically about St. Mary’s acoustics in his pre-concert introduction to the program, I found that the choir sounds better in the larger and more acoustically opulent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Cathedral Church of St. Luke’s, both of which will host the Schola for repeat performances this week.

Still, this group’s many strengths are evident in any setting, starting with Fithian’s thoughtful programming, which drew most heavily on the Medieval through the Baroque repertory, but also included a single motet by Anton Bruckner, composed in 1879, in the waning years of Romanticism.

If you think of Bruckner as the composer of huge, earth-shaking symphonies, you might expect that his “Os Justi,” a setting of lines from Psalm 37, would seem jarring after a half dozen works composed between the 13th and 15th centuries, and following the plainchant “O Sapientia,” without pause. In a way, the juxtaposition of single-line plainchant to Bruckner’s fully-harmonized texture was like the change from black and white to color, in “The Wizard of Oz.”

But Bruckner’s motets, which are heard too infrequently, are the essence of pious introspection, composed with Bruckner’s evident recollection of his time as an organist in a monastery, early in his career. Their expression is subdued and beautifully direct, and Fithian’s singers gave it a pointedly subdued but soulful, elevating performance that proved one of the program’s most memorable moments.


Fithian’s program tells the Christmas story twice – first, in a sequence of short pieces (as well as readings from St. Ambrose of Milan, Sidney Godolphin and Chaucer) that begins with plainchant and Medieval works that express the hope for redemption and that makes its way toward Renaissance and Baroque celebrations of both Jesus and Mary from France, Spain, Holland, England and Germany; then by way of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “In Nativitatem Domini Canticum” (H. 416), a cantata that tells the story as it is revealed to the shepherds.

Charpentier wrote several works under this same title between 1684 and 1690, with different texts, as well as short and long versions of this particular setting. Fithian devoted the full second half of the program to the longer version of the 1690 work here (having performed the short edition last year).

It was a wise choice: Charpentier’s music radiates the elegance of the French Baroque style and throws a spotlight on many of this ensemble’s strongest elements: The 15-voice choir produced a consistently rich, blended sound; the orchestra, which seemed a mixture of period and modern instruments, gave graceful accounts of the descriptive interludes; and soloists from the choir sang powerfully.

Of the latter, Martin Lescault stood out, both for the broadly attractive quality of his tenor voice, and for the sense of nuanced Baroque style that he brought to the Angel’s and Shepherd’s arias. John D. Adams brought an appealing firmness to the bass arias and to a nicely balanced duet with tenor Paul McGovern, during the finale. And countertenor Christopher Garrepy offered a focused reading of the Angel’s second aria.

Several soloists played important roles in the first half of the program as well, among them, mezzo-soprano Abra Mueller, who brought both a warm tone to the solo lines in “Rosa das Rosas e Flor das Flores” from the 13th century “Cantigas de Santa Maria,” and soprano Molly Harmon and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen, who collaborated on an assured performance of Bach’s “Nun Komm, Dear Heiden Heiland,” from Cantata No. 36.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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