Dallas — The pristine white walls of Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church echoed with decidedly un-Presbyterian poetry in sensual musical settings on Feb. 26 as the 24-voice Orpheus Chamber Singers and artistic director Donald Krehbiel presented a concert titled “Expressions of Love.”
Dallas-based composer-conductor Joel Martinson, director of music at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, was impressively represented by his five-movement cycle Evening Music for chorus and oboe. Made up of settings of four 20th-century American and one 19th-century British poet, Evening Music demonstrates an unfailing ear on the part of the composer for choral sonority. The cycle also reveals an impeccable command of the craft of counterpoint as well as an understanding of the use of imitative counterpoint for dramatic and narrative effect on the part of the composer.
Within these relatively short but fully worked out choruses (any of which could stand alone outside of the cycle), Martinson imaginatively explores a world of strategies, from fugal technique reminiscent of Brahms and Bach in the Phllip Larkin setting “Since the Majority of Me” to the hypnotic, almost eerie close harmonies of the setting of Kenneth Patchin’s “Fall of the Evening Star.” The blending of chorus with the oboe part (here performed with expressive resonance by Elise Belk) was unfailingly effective as well; however, Martinson’s ability to draw on styles from across the centuries and yet create a convincingly unified cycle was the most impressive aspect of this set, which was performed with the Orpheus Chamber Singers’ characteristically beautiful blend and perfect intonation.
A surprisingly effective moment arrived with the unaccompanied choral transcription of Martin Gore’s “Enjoy the Silence,” borrowed from the electronic pop group Depeche Mode and hauntingly arranged by Eric Whitacre. The Argentine folksong “Chacerera de las Lomas” and a wordless arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s tango “La Muerte del Angel” pulled the chorus into unconventional choral technique, ranging from imitations of maracas and poultry in the former to a choral glissando in the latter.
Not surprisingly, French music figured prominently in the love-focused agenda, beginning with Debussy’s masterful settings of Medieval texts, the Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans, including a wonderful journey from harmonic order to deliberate disorder in “Dieu! Qu’il la Fait Bon Regarder” (“Lord! She is Lovely to Behold”), a solo of carefree sensuality against a backdrop of choral la-la-la in “Quant J’ai Ouy le Tabourin” (“When I Hear the Tambourine”), and a dark portrayal of winter in “Yver, Vous n’Estes qu’un Villain” (“Winter, You are Nothing but a Villain”). The perfectly blended tone quality of the Orpheus Chamber Singers again proved ideal in this music, and in the “Calme de Nuits” (“Calmness of Night”) and “Les Fleurs et les Arbres” (“The Flowers and the Trees”) of Camille Saint-Saëns, the first an almost motionless choral etude, the second a catalogue of quick images.
Four of 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi’s Seven Poems of Robert Bridges closed the concert, with the sonorities of that master of choral timbre matched perfectly to this ensemble, most impressively in the tricky, unpredictable modulations of the final of the four settings, “Nightingales.”
Five songs for solo voice with piano were interspersed in the concert. Soprano Erinn Sensenig presented the playful, tango-like “Animal Passion” of Jake Heggie, a composer familiar to Dallas audiences for his opera Moby-Dick; Jason Awbrey brought an impressive deep resonance to Ravel’s “Chanson Romanesque,” and soprano Audra Methvin showed off a brilliant upper register in Charpentier’s “Dequis le Jour.”
Tenor Barrett Radziun performed two of Britten’s folk-song settings, “The Sally Gardens” and “The Brisk Young Widow,” floating the simple melodies through Britten’s deliberately odd, off-kilter accompaniments, and mezzo-soprano Laura Warriner Bray brought appropriate comical character to her beautiful tone quality in the ballad-like “Someone is Sending me Flowers” by the late American jazz symphonist David Baker. For the vocal solos, pianist James C. Emery supported ably and deftly in this wide range of music.