Getting personal with the Psalms

The concert included the world premiere of “Expectans expectavi,’’ by composer Abbie Betinis, a cancer survivor. The concert included the world premiere of “Expectans expectavi,’’ by composer Abbie Betinis, a cancer survivor. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2011

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Sunday’s psalm-themed concert by Chorus pro Musica and the New England Philharmonic, conducted by music director Betsy Burleigh, was suitably eclectic. The Psalms, the lyric sheets of the biblical album, have proved endlessly adaptable to countless musical temperaments; offering contrasting settings of the same psalms, the program emphasized that variety.

The highlight was a world premiere, “Expectans expectavi,’’ by the Minnesota-based composer Abbie Betinis. A three-time cancer survivor, Betinis chose portions of the 38th, 39th, and 40th Psalms — songs of illness, desperation, and rage.

The music pushes forward a brooding, dissonant unease and an almost verismo-style operatic anger. Against bold instrumental flourishes, the chorus ranged from murmured chanting to flurried bursts of words.

The piece was performed twice, and the second time through the parts fell into place: Crisper chorus diction counterbalanced the orchestra’s aggression, and the overall thread stretched taut. Circling back to the quiet tread of its opening figures, “Expectans expectavi’’ managed to feel both cathartic and unresolved.

A series of a cappella works projected distinctive attitudes on the psalmic repertory. Francis Poulenc’s “Exultate Deo’’ incants Psalm 81 with bouncy brightness, until the music swerves into ravishing chromaticism, the composer’s habitual navigation between sacred and secular traced especially fine.

Felix Mendelssohn made similar worldly commentary in his cantata on “Aus tiefer Noth,’’ drawn from Psalm 130 (“out of the depths I cry to Thee’’), his determined homage-to-Bach vigor turning yearningly Romantic when ruminating on earthly sin. Andrew Rindfleisch’s “Anthem’’ (a Boston premiere) also sets Psalm 130, but as a gentle blur, woven from back-and-forth two-note figures, rocked in the cradle of the deep.

Burleigh’s conducting was measured, tempi tending toward circumscribed steadiness. The chorus was superbly prepared, impressively secure in the unaccompanied repertoire, especially fine in Rindfleisch’s controlled cirrus and the velvety soft landings of Mendelssohn’s closing chorale.

The concert closed with Igor Stravinsky’s 1933 “Symphony of Psalms,’’ the pleading of Psalms 39 and 40 (38 and 39 in the Vulgate) and the praise of Psalm 150 refracted through Stravinsky’s precise, exuberant angularity (which the chorus managed with rather more elegance than the orchestra).

The confluence of music and composer — both advertising stringency with meticulous showmanship — reiterated the afternoon’s motif of mutably personal psalmody. Their divine address notwithstanding, the Psalms tend to reveal more about the singer than the intended recipient.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


Betsy Burleigh, music director

With the New England Philharmonic

At: Jordan Hall, Sunday