Dallas — All musicians are time travelers. They use their art to invoke past voices and try to connect current with historical. This is especially true in the holiday season, where audiences expect and desire large, warm servings of comfortable nostalgia.
Orpheus Chamber Singers’ Wintersong measures up fully to the task. The virtuosic choral group, under the direction of Donald Krehbiel, presented a sumptuous aural feast of familiar, novel and sparkling music rooted in the holidays and in the season itself, mixing festivity with introspection. The result was typically stirring and spirited, with moments of breathtaking accomplishment.
The concert opened with “A Great and Mighty Wonder,” a carol setting by modern British composer James Whitbourn, a dislocation of sorts in that it was unfamiliar words to a well-known tune. The piece was fairly standard in its harmonies, but was a good introduction to the vocal capabilities that would soon be on display. The next two pieces, more complex modern and the only ones on the program not rooted in the past, were probably the highlights of the first half, especially John Joubert’s remarkable passion piece, “Joy in the Morning.” The nonagenarian composer fills the work with all of Christmas’s (and winter’s) emotionality in short order. It flows from the raucous joy of the opening, through a sinuous and mysterious, almost mystical passage, into calm and lyrical and then right out to joyful for the stirring conclusion. This was one of the pieces where the chorus was given full emotional rein and with their famously soaring soprano section and broad bold bass sound, they achieved lustrous excitement.
Every Christmas concert must have its selection of caroling. The next portion of the concert featured three modern, almost jazzy settings of “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “In Dulci Jubilo” arranged by Matthew Culloton. The settings were agreeable and intriguing — who would have thought of placing “Angels…” in a minor key? However they were all of a type, featuring a rhythmically interesting background and carol text rising above. The whole effect seemed prolonged and formulaic.
After an audience singing of “The First Nowell” (which proved that not only are Orpheus one of the finest vocal ensembles in the area, but they also attract a very talented clientele), the group moved into a rather ambitious and dislocated set of early colonial Spanish music from the New World. One of the problems with Time Travel is the disorientation of arrival, and the first piece on this set, Juan de Araujo’s charming “Los Coflades de la Estleya,” performed with celloist Karen Hall and guitarist Nathaniel Earhart as accompaniment, took a while to settle in both rhythmically and stylistically. As woodblocks and other rustic percussion entered the fray, the piece settled into the delightful whirlwind that it is. The next piece in contrast was a more staid motet by Francisco Hernandez, a Spaniard working in Peru, entitled “Sancta Maria, e!” It was redolent of the mysticism of the composer Victoria and was sonorous and rich with classic suspensions. Finally in this set was a curious piece called “Convidando Esta la Noche” by Juan Garcia de Zespedes, which mixed high Renaissance homophony with raucous folk dance, establishing a church vs. secular dichotomy which may be the most prominent tension of the Christmas holidays. Although a fascinating set to end the first half, there was not enough language distinction to place the pieces as Spanish, let alone New World Spanish.
The second half was described in the notes as reflecting the “stillness and serenity of the winter.” The beautifully balanced program was highlighted by the ever stirring “Serenity” (a complex setting of O magnum mysterium) by Ola Gjello, a mesmerizing song without text (“Seven Sounds Unseen No. 3” by Robert Moran), and a graceful piece by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, “O salutaris,” which featured that rarest of choral moments, an inner-parts duet. The alto unison at the beginning was superb and each part joined in testimony to the skilled sonority of the ensemble’s voices. The half also featured tone poems by Bo Holton, Abbie Betinis and Richard Lloyd (a setting of Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” — where would the season be without her poetry?). An accompanied octet sang Sandstrom’s arrangement of “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen” and the whole ensemble sang the lovely Spanish seasonal lullaby “El Rorro” counterintuitively translated to English by composer Jeffrey Van. The climactic moment occurred in the final piece of the program, where the split choir intoned Franz Biebl’s stirring and timeless setting of “Ave Maria” from the church aisles.
The serenity of the music was immediately present in mood and in blend – Orpheus is extraordinary in its balance of tone and pitch – but the whole program would have benefitted from a softer dynamic. The chorus can rise to glorious fortissimo. Mr. Krehbiel would do well to allow the luxury of some lush pianissimo as well.
The concert in entirety was heartwarming and emotive, a perfect note for the holiday season.
» There is a final performance at 7 :30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas.