On March 18, a beautiful early Sunday evening just turning toward spring, the birds were still twittering as we hustled into the big, white East Hampton Presbyterian Church, built in 1648, a year after the settling of the town, to hear the Choral Society of the Hamptons present a concert of sacred music written by composers of the past three centuries. Inside, the choristers filed in to take their places on tiered benches, followed by the South Fork Chamber Ensemble players. Thomas Bohlert, the church’s music director, played piano and organ, Linda Wetherill was on flute, Terry Keevil, oboe, Rebecca Perea, cello, Margery Fitts, harp, Alec Massaro, timpani, and Peter DeSalvo, glockenspiel.
The guest conductor, Jesse Mark Peckham, greeted us enthusiastically, then turned to his musicians, and the musical feast began with Gabriel Fauré’s famous “Cantique de Jean Racine,” written in 1865 when he was 20 and in his last year of music school, where he studied with Camille Saint-Saens. It is a choir director’s dream, written for mixed chorus and piano or organ. Maestro Peckham led the choristers’ entrances and exits with subtlety and precision, one of his many talents that was to continue throughout the evening, illuminating the music and making it such a joy to listen to.
Fauré used dynamics, color, and harmony to achieve the sound he wanted and his music follows the central points of interest in the text by the 17th-century dramatist and poet Jean Racine. As in his Requiem to follow, Fauré treats this prayer with restraint and charm, seeing death as a happy deliverance rather than a painful passing.
Maestro Peckham has emerged as one of the most versatile and accomplished young conductors of his generation. At 18, he was asked to conduct a Beethoven Chamber Orchestra in Hradec. He stayed on to conduct leading orchestras in the Czech Republic and to serve as artistic director of the Czech World Orchestra. In 2005, he returned to this country to found Khorikos, an ensemble of singers whose unique expressivity make even the most complex harmonies sound sweet and clear. His wife, Vanessa Hylande, a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and a singer with the Khorikos ensemble, is theyir chief executive officer. His conducting is physical. He moved and danced as, like a ventriloquist, he elicited precisely the sound he wanted to hear from his singers.
“I must leave the podium now as I want to video my wife and my son, Emmett Schwartzman, who will sing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Pie Jesu,’ ” he announced at one point. Ms. Hylande and 8-year-old Emmett, already a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s professional children’s choir, stood up, side by side, and sang, her mezzo-soprano voice meshing and intermingling with his treble voice as they sang the only classical piece Webber has written, one he describes as his most personal work — a child’s view of the divine. I’m told that Emmett wrote each chorister a thank-you note. What good manners — and I hear he’s crazy about gymnastics, especially the trampoline. Quite a talented family.
Silvie Jensen is a mezzo-soprano with a wide range of vocal accomplishments, both as a chamber musician and as a soloist who has appeared in everything from opera to guest performances with Ornette Coleman and Meredith Monk. She sang two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music she loves, in perfect German, accompanied by Ms. Perea on cello and Mr. Keevil on oboe on Cantata No. 110. The instrumentalists had one day to rehearse but Ms. Jensen’s collaborative skills pulled them through beautifully. Cantata No. 94, accompanied by Mr. Bohlert on organ, Ms. Wetherill on flute, and Ms. Perea on cello, was as smooth as glass (or Glass, with whom Ms. Jensen has also performed!). She appeared again as soloist on Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum.” I’m not a particular fan of Mozart, but this work contained one of the loveliest arias, sacred or secular, I’ve ever heard. I can’t deny Mozart’s melodic genius.
Charles David Osborne, born in 1949, is perhaps the least well known of the composers presented. He began his career as a singer, but changed to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he trained to become a cantor and discovered his passion for composing. His motet, “Whosoever Saves a Single Life,” was written for the Songs of Life Festival. It received a world premiere in 2011 at the Kennedy Center, performed by the ensemble Khorikos and conducted by Mr. Peckham. The text is from the Talmud and, in the composer’s words, “The motet is meant as a musical benediction, a way for the Jewish people (and a Jewish composer) to say ‘Thank you.’ ”
John Rutter, born in 1945, founder of the Cambridge Singers and a composer of choral music, is also one of England’s finest choral conductors. His magnificent Requiem was written for his father, who, although never knowledgeable in music himself, avidly supported his son’s musical passion and determination. Rutter was also inspired to write the piece upon his discovery of Fauré’s Requiem. As in Fauré’s masterpiece, Rutter’s Requiem is not set in its entirety in traditional form. The seven movements are full of vernacular texts, interwoven with Latin and full of rich harmonies illustrative of the texts, inclusive, as Rutter desired, and available to all people.
Each setting has an important part for solo instruments, depending on whether it’s a psalm, a prayer, a folk song, or a Gregorian chant sound. The sixth movement is the 23rd Psalm. Harp and chorus with oboe illustrate the words “My cup runneth over,” at which Maestro Peckham leapt up, and the final setting, Lux Aeterna, with timpani and organ accompaniment, began. “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto thee . . . bless them, bless them. . . .” Ms. Jenson finished the movement on a high B flat, “they rest, they rest, they rest. . . .” Ms. Perea, whose cello began the Requiem, brought the concert to an end.
Bursts of bravos and a standing ovation followed the thrilling show, a concert of joy and light, with melody the source that unified and synchronized this interesting and diverse program. We left the church singing.
Elizabeth Rogers, a pianist and Sagaponack resident, has reviewed concerts for The Star occasionally for more than a decade.