Dallas — The Orpheus Chamber Singers opened its 21st season on Sunday with Masterworks Ancient & Modern, performed at Dallas City Performance Hall in a concert that succeeded splendidly on all levels.
The first half was an entirely a cappella feast of major works by major composers. Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, by J.S. Bach translates as, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." There was no weakness here. Opening a concert with such a high degree of difficulty, in a piece originally written to have instruments doubling the voices, was a bold choice and was sung with complete command.
Lilting melismas danced from the first downbeat to the last. The balance of fugal subjects and countersubjects made the double-choir positioning sound like left and right halves of a singular choral cohesion. The confluence of textures was transparent and the intonation immaculate.
Bach set the text of Romans 8:26-27 for the 1729 funeral of a Leipzig University professor. On Sunday, Orpheus dedicated it with prayers for the recent passing of Gabe Klein, son of company soprano Heidi Klein. "Beste mit unaussprechlichem Seufzen" translates as, "In sighs that cannot be put into words." The choir's textual sensitivity and collective empathy bordered on clairvoyance.
The choir stretched into the acoustical space of City Performance Hall during Felix Mendelssohn's Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant and O Be Joyful in the Lord from
Three Motets Op. 69. So clear was Orpheus' tone that every slight nuance found form. Like organic phrases growing between voice parts, one flowering of a phrase coaxed the next
to bloom. This treatment of line was common to many songs in the early masterworks part of the concert.
Typical choral programs seek to impress by including an obscure gem of a song. Singing only known composers takes a different kind of confidence. Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrieli, Credo from William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices and Versa Est in Luctum by Alonso Lobo, all dating to the 1590s, served as much more than mere score studies. That a modern choir can so inhabit such old music speaks to the creative sensitivity of Artistic Director Don Krehbiel and to the basic humanness of the choral art itself.
Pianist Eduardo Rojas joined Orpheus for the second and more experimental half of the night. Peter Quince at the Clavier by American opera composer Dominick Argento tells
of a clumsy character from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream lusting for Susanna from the biblical Book of Daniel. Shape-shifting tonalities painted abstract colors of "witching chords" and "spent emotions."
The piano accompaniment was no mere "accompaniment" at all. Like the orchestra in a Wagner opera, instrumentation here serves as a character in the story. Percussive syllables, pianistic colorings and atonal harmonies painted an invisible stage of "tambourines," "green water" and "bawdy strings."
Lullaby and Ballade to the Moon from Daniel Elder's Three Nocturnes provided a satisfying end to the beginning of Orpheus Chamber Singers' third decade. Both are on the ensemble's upcoming album, and reached a level of emotional comfort with Lauridsenlike voicings in rich bass and crystalline trebles—as if singing to each person in the audience, "As the darkened hours flee, My heart beats ever rapidly, Though heavy hang my eyes with sleep, My singing soul, it cries to thee."
Perhaps underadvertised and thus underattended, the Orpheus Chamber Singers concert of Masterworks Ancient & Modern was a moving, intimate miracle of perfection.