“Often I have a piece that I want to do, and I base everything around that piece. But I always feel that in May you want a lighter piece, people are feeling good about the spring, so we tend to do stuff that’s more celebratory.”
That’s Mary Beekman, who’s directed Musica Sacra since 1979, talking about the ensemble’s May 14 concert at First Church, Congregational, in Cambridge. As the program’s title, “The Joke’s on . . . Choral Music to Tickle Your Funny Bone,” suggests, what Musica Sacra will be celebrating is humor.
The piece that got her started, Beekman explains, is 19th-century French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan’s “Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.” “The scoring is so unusual,” she says, “three oboes and a bassoon, and it’s very lugubrious, but it’s also very funny, because there’s only the two phrases.”
Both are spoken to the parrot: “As-tu déjeuné, Jacquot,” which is the French equivalent of “Polly want a cracker,” and “Et de quoi,” which Beekman says, “I translated to my chorus as ‘What’s going on, why are you not responding?’ So that was the inspiration.”
Beekman had hoped to include P.D.Q. Bach’s oratorio “The Seasonings” on the program, but her budget didn’t allow for that. Instead, she’s doing two P.D.Q. madrigals, “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth” and “The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give.”
“Peter Schickele as a composer is quite wonderful,” she says of the artist behind the P.D.Q. canon. “I’m really kind of sorry that he didn’t write more as himself, because he does have a lot of talent for lovely melodies.”
In general, Beekman explains, she opted for pieces with humorous texts as opposed to musical quirks, citing an example by Daniel Pinkham, many of whose works Musica Sacra has performed. “He wrote a cantata, ‘The Saints Preserve Us,’ where he actually wrote the words himself, she says, “and he has all these bizarre saints” — like St. Aquacia, patroness of washing machines, St. Celsius, patron of thermostats, and St. Attica, patroness of stored objects.
“The Joke’s on . . .” will also include Paul Sjolund’s “Love Lost,” to texts by Dorothy Parker; three choruses from Irving Fine’s “Alice in Wonderland” and also his “McCord’s Menagerie”; the first volume of Eric Whitacre’s “Animal Crackers,” to poems by Ogden Nash; Goffredo Petrassi’s “Nonsense,” to poems by Edward Lear; Ivor Davies’s “The Prayer of the Cat”; Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “El Hambo”; and Musica Sacra accompanist Terry Halco’s arrangement of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” which quotes Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Finally, there’s the “Comic Duet for Two Cats” that has been credited to Rossini and does at least draw on music from his opera “Otello,” with lyrics that are nothing but the word “meow.” Beekman says she’ll be auditioning for the hammiest pair of sopranos she can find. “We’ll be going for the competitive aspect of it, and also the idea that ‘meow’ is a wonderful word for getting all sorts of sounds out of the production. We have a lot of ways in which you can make it very funny, and we’ll be working on all of them.”
Stephanie Neely, an alto in her sixth year with the group, is among the singers vying for the cat’s meow. “I wanted to join a choir that would push me to become a better musician and a better singer,” she says. “At the audition rehearsal, I was flabbergasted by the precision, the musicality, and the tone that the group was able to produce.”
Though the works on the program are fun to sing, she adds, they’re also “extremely challenging.” In Petrassi’s setting of the Lear limerick that begins, “There was a Young Lady whose chin,” she points out, the choir has to imitate the harp that the Young Lady purchases.
But the “Cat Duet” — isn’t that for sopranos? “There’s the lower of the two parts that I think will work in my range,” Neely says. “It’s a piece I’ve known since I was a kid. Fingers crossed!”
All told, Beekman says, “we’re going to play this for laughs. There’s going to be a lot more acting out than we would typically do.”
MUSICA SACRA: “The Joke’s on . . . Choral Music to Tickle Your Funny Bone”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.