Dallas — My only regret about Saturday night’s performance by the Orpheus Chamber Singers is that there wasn’t more of it. The performance was sufficiently enthralling that when it ended, I would have liked the singers to start again from the beginning of the program.
We might be accustomed to think of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar as a sad, gloomy affair. The weeks each year leading to the acknowledgement of Christ’s crucifixion are filled, or so we might think, with lamentation. But with opportunities to listen to Lenten music such as that performed by Orpheus Saturday evening, under the leadership of Artistic Director Donald Krehbiel, there are reasons to be joyful, indeed.
The program was an interesting one, and perhaps ideally suited to Orpheus’ soaring voices. The first works on the program were a set of pieces from the high Renaissance—two settings of O Vos Omnes, one by Tomás Luis de Victoria and one by Carlo Gesualdo, with a setting of Taedet Animam Meam by Victoria in between. These composers were contemporaries—Victoria lived from 1548 to 1611 and Gesualdo from 1561 to 1603. (This makes them both close contemporaries of Shakespeare, too, who lived 1564-1616.) It was thus compelling to hear the differences between the two settings of O Vos Omnes. Gesualdo’s harmonies sound like those of someone who is writing a hundred years later than Victoria, not at the same time.
For the Victoria settings, only 12 singers were used instead of the Chamber Singers’ full complement of 24. The crystalline sonority of those dozen voices was an outstanding beginning to this exemplary program.
After the Renaissance pieces, there was a brief audience-participation sing-along, the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” by Johann Crüger. This was the only significant misjudgment of the evening. All of a sudden we were in a church (and not just literally; the concert was at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church), singing hymns together in our perfectly ordinary (for the most part) voices, and the magnificent spell of the 24 extraordinary voices that comprise Orpheus was broken.
The purpose of the sing-along, however, was to give the Orpheus singers time to move into the organ loft in the back of the church. That was their perch for James MacMillan’s Mass, a contemporary (composed in 2000) yet accessible work by the Scottish composer using the traditional Mass sequence in an English translation. The piece features a daunting and prominent organ part, played with finesse by Highland Park Presbyterian Church’s organist, Michael Shake.
The decision to place the singers behind the listeners was a fascinating experiment. It was destabilizing to have our expectations of the concert experience—that we will be able to see the musicians who are performing—upended. Notably, few audience members chose to swivel in their pews to get a better view of the ensemble. With the singers behind us and therefore no visual stimulus except the church itself, we are obliged to focus on the music. Other than distractions posed by a baby shrieking at inopportune times—please don’t bring your small children to classical concerts!—the Mass, with its layers of voices over the organ filigree, was gripping. The singers handled the difficult harmonies of the piece well, with seldom a misstep. Use of the biggest pipes in St. Thomas Aquinas’ fine Schudi organ, the ones whose resonances audiences feel as much as hear, was thrilling, too.
The final piece on the program, James Whitbourn’s Luminosity, celebrates religious faith in a slightly different way from the others. The texts for the piece are mostly Christian writers, including Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and others, but also include the 18th-century Buddhist nun Ryonen. The blend of Eastern and Western influences is also evident in the instrumentation for this piece, which uses an Indian tanpura played by Vatsal Dave, percussion, and a viola played partly in the Carnatic style of southern India. (A violin would be a typical instrument in an Indian Carnatic music ensemble, as would tanpura, percussion, and a vocalist, so this ensemble wasn’t far off.)