There is something about a great stone church with towering arches and filled with choral music that befits a Christmas-tide concert. St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas proved to be just such a venerable venue for the Orpheus Chamber Singers, under the exacting direction of artistic director Donald Krehbiel, on Saturday evening. Subtle lighting gave the impression that the candles on the forged holders that lined the center aisle were the only source of illumination for the massive, soaring interior. We were taken back centuries in time.
What I am about to say next in no way detracts from the excellent program they presented, but nothing reached a comparable level of inspiration as did the processional. The solemn singers slowly entered to the sound of a drum. Holding candles, they sang a setting of a Buddhist text, "Unborn," by composer Alex Roth. While it talked of beginnings, and the program notes valiantly tried to tie it to Christmas, this very non-Christian, but somehow Christmas-like piece immediately informed the audience that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday musical buffet. We knew that we were not going to hear "Winter Wonderland," "O Holy Night" or Gesu Bambino.
What we did hear was an eclectic collection of, if not all precisely Christmas related, at least spiritually renewing, works for choir beautifully sung. They covered a great time range. The youngest composer represented is Martin Bates (b 1951) whose childlike and delightful "Three Songs for Christmas" closed the program. On the other side of the time continuum, Orlando di Lasso's (1532-1593) was represented by his complex Resonet in laudibus, a contrapuntal thicket of music. The chorale "O How a Rose Err Blooming" was set by Swedish composer Jan Sandström against a barely audible choral mesh of hummed shifting tonal centers and clusters.
And so it went.
Old and new all combined to create a mood, exploit the acoustics of the sanctuary, and present (not show off) the singular abilities of the chorus. There were two audience sing-alongs, which used the "greater choir" and most of the audience sang with surprising ability. One suspects that the audience was filled with more than a smattering of choristers and directors from other such organizations. The version of "It Came Upton the Midnight Clear" was not one that was familiar to many in the audience, so there was much mumbling. But the audience made "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" ring to the very top of the rafters.
Some of the music on the program was challenging, yet the choir effortlessly soared through the many treacherous parts of "Joy in the Morning" by John Loubert (b 1927) with nary an out of tune chord to be found. Bob Chilcott's equally difficult "The Rose in the Middle of Winter" received equally magnificent and accurate treatment.
Krehbiel is a fascinating dichotomy in his presence on the podium. He uses precise, choppy and exacting gestures which elicit just the opposite—legato lines of great purity. He mirrors his hands in a tightly controlled frame that is just inside of a box drawn from his shoulders to his waist. Occasionally, a gesture will rise out of this box, but that is only in very emotional moments. He keeps a tight control on the music, even to the point of subdividing where a choir of the excellence of the Orpheus Chamber Choir hardly needs it.
With a fine group of singers such as this, the whole concept of throwing a cue is a ridiculous superfluity so his textbook beat patterns seem unnecessary.
Yet, he seems to be communicating on a more subliminal level than mere pointy beat patterns. At one point, he had the wrong music up and blew the wrong pitch. What went on between chorus and director was barely perceivable. Somehow, singers and conductor communicated imperceptibly. Krehbiel moved around a few pages and blew another starting pitch. The acknowledgement from the choir of the correction was as subtle as the entire exchange. They knew—but the audience wasn't in on it.
On the down side, diction was poor. It was a good thing that the audience had the texts to follow. There were times when it was difficult to determine the language in which they were singing. Final consonants were the red-headed stepchild all evening. Even "Silent Night" was bereft of a final "t," making it sound like silen nigh.
Final consonants that did mange to get some attention were voiced so faintly that it was hard to tell if they were really there or just supplied by your imagination. Perhaps this was because of the extremely resonant and echoic acoustics, but that is really no excuse for unintelligibility. Such cavernous halls require even more effort than one would usually put forth. After all, choral music tells a tale and is about something that the composer thought was important enough to say, that they set it to music.
Also on the odd, but maybe not down, side is the actual sound of the chorus. Krebiel has his women sing with a pure vibratoless tone, yet he lets the men add warmth with a subtle vibrato. This even carried over to the soloists. The men are permitted vibrato while the women are not. This parsing of vibrato divides the chorus sonically into the warm fuzzies (the men) and the cold pricklies (the women).
This is, of course, an exaggeration (caused by trying to convey sound with the silence of written words), but the effect is noticeable. Some soprano notes went right through you like an icy beam while the resonant men warmed your hands like a welcome hearth. Perhaps this is the way the latest research and choral de rigueur dictates, but a fully blended choral sound, be it either vibratoless or vibrato-laden would seem to be more desirable than la voix mixte.
These minor points aside, the program presented by Krebiel and the Orpheus Chamber Singers sets a high bar in a number of categories. First, the singing is absolutely superb and precisely in tune at every moment. Second, the music selected is remarkably diverse and all of the very highest quality representing centuries of achievement. Third, living composers are on the program (this is huge and so unusual as to be worth mention). Lastly, the concert evokes Christmas, without dwelling on its religiosity, so that the experience can be enjoyed by people of all faiths who share, in winter's dark hours, an exhilaration in the very concept of a birth of hope, a possibility of redemption and a promise of forgiveness.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Monday at St. Jude Catholic Church, 1515 N. Greenville Avenue in Allen; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, 9800 Preston Road, Dallas.