St. Mary Schola brought together composers spanning three centuries in “As Pants the Hart,” its annual Lenten program, on Friday evening in the chapel of Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. As seems typical for this ensemble, which is directed by Bruce Fithian, the choice of works was a thoughtful balance of familiar works and pieces from the deeper wells of the choral repertory. And the performances by the choir and soloists were expressive and polished.

The program took its name from the opening lines of Psalm 42, in the translation that Handel used in his “Chandos Anthem No. 6,” which shared the second half with Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus Desiderat,” a Latin setting of the same psalm.

There were three equally valid ways to hear the sequence of works Fithian presented. One was as a church service, of sorts. This was, after all, a Lenten program. Another was purely as an evening’s entertainment, a series of sublime works meant to dazzle the ear as much as to stir the soul. And the third was as a concise overview of the very different ways composers across time responded to similar (or in the case of Psalm 24, identical) texts.

Palestrina, writing in Rome in the late 16th century, approached the opening lines of the psalm with a combination of serenity, passion and devotion, which is a lot to pack into a single, brief work, but it’s all there in Palestrina’s slowly rising melody and rich, smoothly unfolding, unaccompanied choral harmonization.

Handel, writing in 18th century London, for the chapel of Queen Anne, had more expansive forces available – a chamber orchestra, a small chorus and soloists – and different tastes to suit. If Palestrina’s version evokes the otherworldliness of a heavenly choir, Handel’s praises God with the pomp and majesty that earthly rulers required.

In the introductory Sonata, therefore, you have a sizzling first violin line, executed brilliantly by Mary Jo Carlsen, and beautifully turned oboe figures, played gracefully by Michael Albert. And in the psalm setting itself, the focus is principally on solo and duet writing, with the choir and orchestra providing support and emphasis.

Tenor Martin Lescault, sopranos Molly Harmon and Erin Chenard, and bass John D. Adams, who sang the solo and duet movements, all have strong, beautifully regulated voices, and in the Handel they shaped and projected their lines with attention to the text. The same can be said of mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen’s account of an aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 24, and Adams’ performance of an aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 56, on the first half of the program.

Fithian also drew superbly blended performances from his singers in three more 16th century works – Palestrina’s “Ave Maria,” Don Carlo Gesualdo’s harmonically adventurous “O Vos Omnes,” and Orlande de Lassus’ “Timor et Tremor,” as well as in an exquisite setting of “Ave Regina Caelorum” by the 15th century composer Guillaume Dufay.

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]

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