Dallas — In the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the Orpheus Chamber Singers vocal ensemble certainly has a reputation that precedes it. Known for having a sound that is pristine and precise, founder and artistic director Donald Krehbiel’s assemblage of polished musicians has consistently set the bar for choral music around DFW for years.
What some have, at times, critically referred to as a beautiful sense of sterility, others have championed as the gold standard of vocal execution—an exemplary model of how a choral ensemble’s sound should operate, altogether pure and technically precise.
At the Oct. 27 performance at University Park United Methodist Church, titled “The Passing of the Year,” the group lived up to these expectations. Tonally, they were expertly refined and expressive, and together with skillful accompaniment from pianist Eduardo Rojas, they demonstrated why they are known as one of the area’s most highly acclaimed choirs. However, as a first-time attendee, I was impressed by more than the group’s sound. Yes, yes, they sounded lovely, but their foremost accomplishment Saturday night was their commitment to artful storytelling.
The thought and care that went into this program came through with perfect poignancy. Through Krehbiel’s smartly chosen selection of works, the Orpheus singers created a universally safe space wherein the audience was encouraged to release any lingering attachments to summer and step purposefully into the darker, more reflective half of the year. It’s a simple concept, I know, but the way this concert expanded to show the beauty and necessity of such transitions was something from which everyone could benefit.
The first half of the program consisted of works primarily from the mid-20th century, all centered on the core themes of autumn—the passage of time, the cyclical nature of life and death, and the importance of stillness and self-reflection. To drive this narrative, Krehbiel pulls from vividly expressive pieces like Forrest Pierce’s Short Is Time, which opened the concert with the basses laying down a percussive “cung-cha-cung,” simulating the steadily mechanical clicking of a clock. Eric Whitacre’s Sleep is emblematic of the composer’s well-known style—richly thick harmonies that sweep high and low with moments of pointed dissonance—which the group delivered effectively. The Fruit of Silence by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks is a remarkable setting of text by Mother Teresa, moving slowly from powerfully dark chords through a brilliant and shimmering middle, finishing sweetly on the text, “The fruit of service is peace.”
Krehbiel evokes two evening songs, or “Abendlied,” from the 19th century here as well. The first, by Brahms, is bright and moves rather swiftly, while the second, by Josef Rheinberger, takes a single passage of Biblical text and spreads it smoothly over dense and tender harmonies.
Closing out the first half was an arrangement of the Appalachian gospel “Angel Band” by Shawn Kirchner, wherein the concentration of sound seems to sweep from one side of the choir to the other until ultimately culminating in a somber finish on the refrain, which beckons the angels to “bear me away on your snow-white wings to my immortal home.”
The second half of the concert was devoted to the English composer Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, a song cycle for double chorus and piano. Composed in 2000, Dove’s work features seven poems set over three movements—the vibrancy of summer, the transition through autumn, and the inevitable stillness of winter. With text from such brilliant minds as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, this work is a challenging confluence of poetry and tonality. Through actively interpretive word-painting, Dove sets the texts with moments that are at once starkly turbulent and subtly reflective, and with Rojas’ expert accompaniment, the choral ensemble does well to deliver the complexity of Dove’s arrangements.
After an athletic “Invocation” and a sweetly rich “The narrow bud opens its beauties to the sun,” Dove evokes quick-moving motifs in “Answer July” with a percolating piano surrounding the movement. “Hot Sun, Cool Fire” calls for intense chromaticism, slightly dark, while “Ah, Sun-flower!” breaks open with big, wrenching chords that cascade gently into the sobering “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss.” Almost like a personal prayer, with the pervasive line of “Lord have mercy on us” making up the foundation of this piece, it is a dark and silky precursor to the final movement of the night, “Ring out, wild bells,” where Dove honors the fury of winter with thick harmonies and bold dynamics.
What Krehbiel and the Orpheus Chamber Singers provided to audience members was beyond a simple demonstration of expert musicianship. While precision and mechanics should never be overlooked, it is important to equally consider the depth of the experience. We all know that this ensemble is “technically” good; it has been said so many times before. However, what some may not be aware of is that this group is also capable of creating true art—the kind that rises above technical evaluation and speaks to the principles of an overarching narrative. Through the delicate design of Saturday night’s program and the thoughtful approach toward its execution, this group proved that it is not only pretty, but also thoroughly effective and artistically self-aware.