Composer Thomas Tallis
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Review: Expressions | Orpheus Chamber Singers | Episcopal Church of the Incarnation

Choral Relief

The season for Orpheus Chamber Singers closes with works by Tallis, MacMillan and Stanford.

published Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Orpheus Chamber Singers presented another impeccably sung program of excellent music on Saturday evening at the Spring Valley United Methodist Church. This is a new venue to me, but it probably won't be the last time it is used as such. The church has excellent acoustics without having the echo that makes many of the large churches a mixed blessing. The interior has a Protestant plainness about it with a gray wood floor and simple, comfortable pews with gray pads. This is contrasted with elaborate stained glass windows; a very large one over the altar and smaller ones that go down both sides of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, it was dark so it was impossible to see the windows on Saturday but it is a good guess that they are beautiful.

Artistic director Donald Krehbiel opened the program with two motets by Thomas Tallis, who's active composing life dates from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth I. Herbert Howells, whose Requiem followed, was an admirer of Tallis. Hearing these two works in close proximity shows just how far Howell's admiration went. While there are some 20th century harmonies and polytonal effects peaking in here and there, the compositional styles of the two composers, separated by four centuries, are complementary. To point up the connection, organist Michael Shake played Howell's Master Tallis' Testament, a work for organ that also harkens back to Tudor sensibilities and refers directly to the earlier composer.

The second half of the program contained two works that were unfamiliar to this writer.

From Krebiel's introductory warning, one might have suspected that James MacMillan's Mass would be a wildly dissonant piece on the level of György Ligeti Lux Eternal (most famous as background music for the artifact found on the moon in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey). What we got instead was an attractive neo-romantic work, whose dissonance was mostly limited to counterpoint in the organ accompaniment. The program ended with Three Motets, Op. 38, by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. These lovely compositions for unaccompanied choir once again harkens back to the Tudor period of English music, with an overlay of luxurious Victorian harmonies.

Throughout the concert, diction was acceptable but muddy. Krehbiel minimizes consonants, especially at the end of word. "Lord" becomes "Low" and "Life" becomes "Lie" while "Hills" reverts to the singular. Admittedly, consonants are a problem with choral groups and a final "s" can sound like pit of vipers. Some choral directors have just a few singers deliver the consonants while others work to minimize them with the entire group adding them. Tossing them out is a less satisfactory solution. Fortunately, the Orpheus Chamber Singers offer the text in the printed program.

The Orpheus Chamber Singers tends to present music written for all-male choirs yet Krehbiel has a professional choir of mixed male and female voices. This leads to a problem. Do you ask the women to sound like boys or do you let them sound like women? Do you keep them vibrato-less and allow the men to warn the sound with vibrato (as Krehbiel does), allow the entire choir to use minimal or no vibrato, or use boys as the composer intended?

This is also a conundrum for any performance of historical music. Critics battle over the use of vibrato in string players when playing anything earlier than Schumann. Original instrument advocates claim that this music only sound right when played on the instruments of the time in which they were composed. If you are playing on modern instruments, should you try to make then sound like their instrumental ancestors, or play them in the modern manner? What to do?

This sticky wicket was brought to mind by the two main works on Krehbiel's program Both Herbert Howells Requiem and John MacMillan's Mass were written for famous all-male choirs, that is, with boys as the soprani and alti singers. Howell's work was for the choir at King's College in Cambridge and MacMillan's for Westminster Cathedral.

Krehbiel's solution is a fairly acceptable compromise and modern audiences are used to hearing vibratoless women paired with men using vibrato. However, it causes some balance problems. Even in Krebiel's impeccably trained choir, a soprano voice occasionally sticks out and the big moments sound shrill. Soprano voices at the top of their range do not produce as pretty a sound, without the assistance of vibrato, as  does a male voice.

I've commented on this problem before, but it seemed more prevalent on Saturday. Perhaps this will not be as noticeable when the concert is repeated on Sunday evening at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. Thanks For Reading


Ed writes:
Monday, April 23 at 1:27PM

I must be used to a vibrato-less soprano sound, as it does not bother me. In fact, it also appears on Incarnation's own CDs; the Chancel Choir has 2 soprani who have stunningly clear high notes, which enables the church to do a lot of old rep (e.g. Allegri's "Misere" with its high C). There is another aspect of the vibrato debate that merits mention: Tuning can be problematic in a complicated choral harmony, or in pieces like those of Tallis where intervals are expecially transparent, when the soprani (and basses) use too much vibrato. It was used VERY sparingly by the Tallis scholars during their recent concert. A piece like "If Ye Love Me" sounds horrid when vibrato is applied. For tenors especially, a measure of head voice is helpful in that rep. Also, for music by Tallis and Stanford, there is actually a performance practice that softens the "explosive" consonants. The "t" in Beati Quorum Via, for example, is minimized by about 2/3. For my own part, I think that it would be advisable to have a couple of folks pronounce a regular "t" just to get the consonant into a sizable room. Consonants get lost very easily in a large cathedral, right? However, that is certainly a minority view, even if I do think that it has merit based on my own experience in choirs where consonants too often disappear under the best of circumstances. As usual, there seem to be more opinions than people on these issues!

Gregory Isaacs writes:
Thursday, April 26 at 3:53PM

Thanks for your erudite and illuminating comments. Most welcome.

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Choral Relief
The season for Orpheus Chamber Singers closes with works by Tallis, MacMillan and Stanford.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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