Dallas — The Orpheus Chamber Singers consistently deliver some of the best choral singing in the Metroplex, and their pre-Christmas concert was no exception. While holiday pops concerts and performances of Messiah are great for getting into the holiday mood, it’s lovely to have a Christmas concert that’s a bit different from the norm. Orpheus provided just that in grand fashion.
Their concerts are staged in some of the most beautiful churches in the Metroplex. The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration is a stunning venue, and a few years ago added a handsome red pipe organ by Richards, Fowkes, & Co. These features, plus acoustics ideally suited for choral music, make it a pleasing choice for Orpheus.
The program featured 20 short works spanning nearly a millennium. Although these works individually require more from the listener than might the sportier fare at a pops concert, the programming was such that my 13-year-old companion found this, one of her first concert experiences, to be engaging and even, she said, “fun!” Not only did the selected works create variety for the listener, but two sing-along breaks permitted some audience participation and allowed us to hear the church’s glorious organ, used sparingly in the rest of the program.
The huge range of works presented at the concert included two settings of “O Viridissima Virga.” First was the original song in praise of the Virgin Mary by the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote the lyrics as well as the music. This creative genius was a composer, poet, philosopher, scientist, and mystic, a Renaissance Woman before there was, you know, a Renaissance. The second setting of the same lyrics was composed by the eco-feminist American composer Janika Vandervelde, who was born in 1955. There is a certain magic in the notion of two women, living 700 years apart, composing very different music for the same poem about one of the most famous women in human history. These two settings also show the musicality of the Orpheus singers—the two dozen or so musicians are able to transition from Medieval to contemporary harmonies without a hitch, and in both, their glorious voices seem to loft over the heads of the audience into the rafters.
The praise to Mary continued with Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat.” Set to the traditional Latin text, this piece is seven minutes or so of pure gloriousness in the right hands. With less gifted performers, Pärt’s simplicity can become banal. But here, it was pure ethereal beauty.
Allowing percussionist Jamal Mohamed to perform a solo on doumbek, a traditional Middle Eastern drum, both allowed him to showcase his considerable skill and provided a changeup for listeners’ ears. It also, whether intentional or not, honored the Middle Eastern origins of this Christmas holiday we celebrate.
After intermission, the ensemble performed a heartbreaking rendition of “Lully, Lulla,” or the Coventry Carol, in a 20th-century setting by Kenneth Leighton. This is surely the saddest Christmas carol ever. It is sung from the point of view of a mother other than Mary, one who had not been warned by an angel to flee to Egypt, and instead is singing her last lullaby to her baby as she waits for Herod to arrive and kill her “little tiny child.” It’s a beautiful song, gloriously sung by Orpheus. If it is not quite the thing to put you in the Christmas spirit, it nonetheless serves as a reminder that perspective matters.
Orpheus Chamber Singers chose not to focus on traditional carols, instead giving listeners Christmas from a different point of view. Overall, it worked brilliantly. Their a cappella singing is nearly pitch-perfect, a rare feat, and their voices are reliably elegant and sophisticated. Hear them whenever you get a chance.