Dallas — As February comes to a close, the Orpheus Chamber Singers presented a beautiful choral program centered on the themes of love and romance at the Lovers Lane United Methodist Church last weekend. In collaboration with Plano East High School’s a cappella choir, the group spun together a collection of pieces spanning from the 16th century to the 20th, marked by their distinguished polish and tonal purity. Conductor and founding artistic director Donald Krehbiel, known for his smooth, thoughtful precision, allowed the program to breathe from start to finish with a through line of subtle, effective energy.
The beautifully appointed sanctuary was the perfect space for these groups. Its large, open layout and high ceilings allowed for several moments of pristine, rounded textures to ring in with lingering clarity.
The first half of the program was characterized by works from 20th century composers, save one bel canto aria from Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola. “Non più mesta,” performed as a solo piece by mezzo-soprano Hannah Ceniseros, was warm and agile, and it served as a bright contrast to the thick textured selections that surrounded it.
The opening selection, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Jean Belmont, is a choral setting of 16th century poetry released in 1994. It started the concert off with dark, weighted harmonies that brought old ideas together with modern musical settings. In this same vein, the program continued by evoking the symbolism of the rose through three settings by Paul Mealor.
It was here, too, that the award-winning Plano East High School choir was featured. Led by Daniel Knight, who is also a member of the Orpheus ensemble, the 80-plus voices gave remarkable sensitivity to two French settings by Morten Lauridsen. Considering their age and size of the group, they offered diction that was notably emotive and a full, expressive tone.
Sticking with the language of love, the two choirs joined forces on “Dirait-on,” also composed by Lauridsen. Together with accompaniment from pianist Chris Brunt, the full ensemble appointed the contemporary color of the work with a requisite pensiveness and rich, velvety lines.
The first half was rounded out by selections filled with character, ranging in effect from deep reflection to sardonic wit. Dale Trumbore’s “Love is a Sickness” is a clever, jazzy setting of 16th century poetry that addresses the more woeful aspects of love and romance. It worked here in this setting, calling for percussive scatting from the basses and tenors to provide a rhythmic backdrop before which the sopranos and altos lay the primary melodic idea. Paul Sjolund’s “Love Lost” brought lighter texts to the program that offered a satirical view of love. They were short, humorous, and a bit quippy—a refreshing look at this group’s ability to interpret and adapt—finishing with Joseph Gregorio’s “Love, Thricewise,” a set three pieces distinct from one another in tone and mood. They range from bright and busy fugue-like lines to dark, reflective, close-nit harmonies, pulling from the poetry of Witter Bynner, Emily Dickinson, and Sidney Lanier.
The second half of the program was in stark contrast to the first in terms of construction and theme. Here, Krehbiel assembled works largely based on the Song of Solomon, set by composers from the Renaissance era of music. Much of the music in this section was marked by rich, contrapuntal interplay and lush brilliance on the Latin language.
Calling upon ancient influencers like Palestrina, Bouzignac, and Ceballos, the choir offered reverence and severity to the theme of the evening. After two rich, sweeping interpretations of Song of Solomon’s second chapter, the ensemble offered two settings of Surge amica mea, or “arise, my love”—both expressive through artful word-painting and wide, encompassing polyphony.
This half also saw contributions from modern composers also playing on the biblical texts. Ivo Antognini’s “I Am the Rose of Sharon” was brooding with heavy textures in the bottom and middle and a bright, lilting top. Though contemporary in its harmonic makeup, it was rife with suggestions of Gregorian chant in its long, wrenching lines and repeated notes.
“Set Me as a Seal” is a familiar set of texts for most choirs, and it was seen here in various iterations of the biblical setting from which it is taken. William Walton’s, composed in 1938, brought dark, booming sonorities to heel against soft, major resolutions, which the ensemble executed with great care and sensitivity. Finishing the night was Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s Epithalame, which set chapter 8 of Song of Solomon into a rousing 12-part polyphony, ending with a bold, expansive “Alleluia!”
It was an interesting enough program designed around an age-old theme. The concept of love has permeated the human experience with pointed poignancy since the beginning of time. The evidence of its enrapturing, infuriating, maddening effects was laid out in Orpheus’ “Lovesong,” as they blended together ancient and modern colors to highlight that this very idea. We all feel it, yearn for it, strive to share it with others. We all know what it’s like to be intoxicated with it, spurned by it—empowered then dejected by it—and yet we always go back for more. I couldn’t ask for a better group of artists to celebrate such a prevailing, perfect paradox through song.