Dallas — Any classical concert is a slice of history: the story of our civilization is writ in our music. That was especially and wonderfully true in Saturday night’s concert, titled “Genesis, Renaissance, Reincarnation,” at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. Here, Dallas’s 25-voice Orpheus Chamber Singers collaborated with Schola Cantorum Stellae Solae, a vocal ensemble specializing in the promotion of proper performance of Gregorian chant, to carry us across a millennium of church music.
The pattern of the program, conducted by Orpheus artistic director Donald Krehbiel, was both obvious and intriguing: in each of the six sections, members of Schola Cantorum Stellae Solae (which means “The School of Singing of the Lone Star,” i.e., Texas) standing in the back in the choir loft, presented a single chant, delivered, in clean, resonant tones, from the historic repertory of the Roman Catholic Church. The chant was followed by a Renaissance or early baroque setting of the same text, in turn followed by a modern third setting of the same text. Repeated six times, the pattern created an epochal sense of historical unity and contrast.
The first set exemplified the entire concert, opening with the chant O Lux Beata Trinitas (“O Trinity, blessed light”); the smooth simplicity of this chant set up the equally flowing, largely chordal—and, in the reverberant acoustic of the church, beautifully resonant—setting of the same text by early Renaissance British composer Robert Fayrfax. This opening group closed with contemporary Japanese composer Ko Matsushita<cq>’s setting of the same text, containing a wide catalog of effects available to the modern composer, sweeping the ancient words up in a sea of choral harmonies.
The more familiar Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”) text followed, in a chant with a more elaborate, melismatic shape, followed by 15th-century French composer Josquin Des Prez’s setting, built around serene imitative counterpoint. This set closed with contemporary Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski’s antiphonal, richly colored setting, ending on a long, hummed “N."
The first Protestant composer on the program, early 17th-century Dutchman Jan Sweelinck, crossed the bridge from the Renaissance to the baroque in his setting of O Sacrum Convivium (“O Sacred Banquet”), which in turn led to 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s slightly jazzy, proto-minimalist setting of the same text. The first half of the program closed with a Jubilate Deo (“Rejoice in the Lord”) set, with, in this case, the chant followed by a setting of that text with a rising motif by Flemish Renaissance composer Orland di Lasso, a German setting by baroque composer Heinrich Schütz of related psalm texts, and a thoroughly modern setting by contemporary Swiss jazz pianist Ivo Antognini.
The most radiant texts arrived after intermission, beginning with the chant Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”), followed by settings by Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and contemporary British composer James MacMillan—the latter of which proved decisively that the Renaissance had no monopoly on hypnotically serene choral writing.
Throughout the first five segments of the concert, impeccably pure and concise execution by both vocal ensembles carried a program free of instrumental accompaniment. In the final segment, based on the funeral chant and text In Paradisum (“In Paradise”), the chant was followed by Spanish Renaissance composer Juan de Esquivel’s awed setting of the entry of the soul into Heaven. Violist Susan Dubois and cellist Gayanne Fullford joined the Orpheus ensemble for what was, for this listener, the most moving and beautiful moment on the concert: the setting of In Paradisum by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (pictured on the cover). The magnificent, beautiful performed journey through the centuries closed with a final setting of In Paradisum excerpted from 20th-century French composer Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, accompanied by organist John Emory Bush.