Dallas — Saturday night at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, the 24-voice Orpheus Chamber Singers and director Donald Krehbiel magnificently advocated late 20th- and early 21st-century choral music, including some hugely demanding works from that flourishing genre. Difficulty of music has never been an obstacle for this superbly-trained group of musicians, who take on close, sometimes dissonant harmonies with apparent ease.
The designated theme of the concert was “Luminosity,” and the main item on the agenda was the 25-minute, multi-movement Luminosity from 2007 by British composer James Whitbourn. The composer appropriately designated this complex work for double chorus, percussion, chimes, viola, and tanpura (a traditional Indian instrument) as a “Cantata-Meditation”; the spacious acoustic and architecture of St. Thomas Aquinas proved an ideal setting, with the choir and most of the instrumental ensemble at the front and the organ at the back for an enveloping sonic effect.
A set of six short excerpts, drawing from sources ranging from the Gospel of St. John to the 19th-century Japanese Buddhist nun Ryonen, provide a foundation of personalized experience of beauty and its meaning for humanity; Whitbourn expands on these texts with ever-varied textures while exploiting the dusky interplay of viola (Daniel McCarthy) and its Asian cousin tanpura (here played by Vatsal Dave), and the occasionally triumphant comments from the organ (Michael Shake) and percussion (Gregory White). The effect was, as intended, emotionally absorbing; the Orpheus Chamber Singers are probably the only ensemble in the region that could have pulled this significant work off so effectively.
The concert had opened with the glorious close harmonies of Bermuda-born British-composer Gabriel Jackson’s “To Morning,” with close harmonies to match the ecstasy of William Blake’s text; British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s “Beyond the Night Sky,” with texts by Steven Shnur and Stephen Hawking, accompanies a dip into the mystery and meaning of everything with evocative hissing sounds from the singers. (The Hawking text asks, with striking simplicity, “What is the nature of the universe?”)
American composer Eric Whitacre’s “Sainte-Chapelle” broadened from a chant-like unison to rich choral harmonies; in Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ “Northern Lights,” the singers must, in addition to tackling the considerable vocal demands, ring hand chimes and create a spooky but exactly pitched hum by running wet fingers on the rim of water-filled glass goblets. Georgia-born Daniel Elder provided two items on the program, including a setting of his own poem “Star Sonnet,” which opens with female voices over a sustained foundation from the men’s voices.
British composer John Rutter’s “Hymn to the Creator of Light” of 1992 shows a more complex side of a composer best known for choir-friendly, accessible works; from thence, conductor Krehbiel and the choir detoured into the Renaissance and Tallis’ Te Lucis Ante Terminum, and, with a quick segue, calmly leaped into the romantic era with a serene choral transcription of the “Nimrod” section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations—all of which underlined the always impressive skills and precision of the Orpheus Chamber Singers, an exquisite gem of the local music scene.