“Beata viscera,” the members of Schola Cantorum sang, processing up the aisle of First Lutheran Church to open Friday’s “Scenes From the Nativity” concert; literally, “blessed organ” — the Virgin Mary’s womb. Both the chant and the program’s Marian slant made one realize how often Mary’s presence in Christmas lore has centered around her body (and, often, not much else), the vessel through which in Christian tradition the son of God took on human form. But that suited Schola Cantorum: Director Frederick Jodry and his 12-voice ensemble cultivate, more than many early-music choirs, a distinctly corporeal sound.
You could hear it in the 15th-century carol “There Is No Rose,” the verses distributed among different duets within the choir, the voices revealing their individual timbres and personalities; in Robert Young’s modern setting of the same text, the voices wonderfully, richly combined, as if the pastel harmonies were being rubbed across textured paper. Other recent works appeared among the antiquities: Jesse Antin’s “The Annunciation,” a set of confidently allusive (and pleasantly elusive) stylistic tableaux, and Peter Wishart’s “Alleluya! A New Work Is Come on Hand,” a pealing, almost poppy anthem, performed, like Young’s piece, alongside its 15th-century source. The group’s consistent sound — immediate, palpably physical, and slightly earthy — made the new seem congruent with the old.
That older repertoire was sung with a sense of vibrant mass. William Byrd’s “Ecce Virgo concipiet” prophesied the nativity with robust certainty. Rolling waves of harmony in Peter Philips’s “Alma redemptoris mater” had weight and undertow. Orlando di Lasso’s “Missus est Gabriel” turned the tête-à-tête between Mary and that angel into an elegantly direct scene; interviewing the shepherds in Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Quem vidistes, pastores,” the choir compelled testimony with enthusiasm ranging from glossy to grand.
The largest statements came from the near-contemporary but stylistically diverse Josquin des Prez and John Taverner. The “Sanctus” from Josquin’s “Missa de Beata Mariae” presented a boisterous, lapel-grabbingly enthusiastic heavenly host; the “Gloria” from the same mass was sturdy, steady praise.
Taverner’s “Gaude plurimum,” by contrast, was a marathon of elaborate opulence, two-part intricacy growing into five-part luxury, the group unfurling long ribbons of bright, syncopated sheen. The text pinpointed Mary’s curious position at the crossroads of natural and divine, mortal and immortal; but the performance’s gentle but insistent rhythmic groove postulated a parallel lesson: Jesus redeeming the soul, Mary, in her way, redeeming the ephemerally physical. The spirit rejoices, but bodies dance.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.