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Secession 'Minimalism' is something else

Jane Ring Frank gave a history of choral minimalism. Jane Ring Frank gave a history of choral minimalism.

CAMBRIDGE -- On Friday night, Boston Secession, the 24-voice professional chorus, pulled off a neat trick: a concert dedicated to "Minimalism in Choral Music" that contained very little actual minimalism. Artistic director Jane Ring Frank talked up the history of the style at length, but the music was often something else.

Take Gavin Bryars's work "And so ended Kant's traveling in this world," which received a beautifully precise American premiere. Bryars is a sometime minimalist, but this lovely 1997 setting describing the German philosopher's last days is more an austere echo of the British choral tradition, a renaissance part-song filtered through 20th-century unease.

Likewise Arvo Pärt's "The Beatitudes," in which the biblical words peal forth as shining, often soaring harmonized chant. Some Philip Glass-like undulating patterns appear in the closing organ cadenza -- magisterially played by Heinrich Christensen -- but even there, the harmonic shifts come fast and furious.

"Transport" from "Testimony of Witnesses," an oratorio-in-progress by composer-in-residence Ruth Lomon, wasn't minimalist, either: The memories of Holocaust survivors' journeys to the camps were given suitably dramatic, if predictably literal, music, with chords mimicking train horns and a snare drum for marching. For this premiere, the ensemble performed with conviction, but the singers' vibrato-less tone was too pure for the brutal horror Lomon sought to portray.

After intermission came American shape-note singing: four traditional hymns -- the audience joining in on "Rock of Ages" -- followed by eight movements (out of 20) from William Duckworth's brilliant 1980-81 deconstruction of that repertoire, "Southern Harmony" (amazingly, a Boston premiere). Unlike traditional minimalism, with its process-centered surface, this music hides its complex workings deep within diatonic, vaguely repetitive textures. "Consolation" is transformed into gentle waves of notes; the familiar tune of "Wondrous Love" is layered and stacked in an uncanny recall of Renaissance style. In "Rock of Ages," pulsing "la-la" patterns are reminiscent of a doo-wop backing track loosed from its record. Initially tentative, the performers settled in with ease.