The Orpheus Chamber Singers is one of the most highly polished professional choral groups in the area, and maybe in the country. There is no detail left to chance in director Donald Krehbiel's carefully chosen and exceedingly well rehearsed group of singers. On Thursday evening, they were in full Christmas mode at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The acoustics there are quite friendly to singing, although the organ leaves something to be desired. However, having heard it sound much better on other occasions, this might have been the fault of guest organist John Emory Bush's registration.
The sanctuary was beautifully decked out for the season and, while not sold out, there was a large audience for Christmas by Candlelight. The choral sound was remarkably even and Krehbiel's precise conducting style, his tendency to mirror his hands aside, is expressive and controlled. The music covered a great range of time and space. They opened with a processional, a 17th-century Peruvian hymn to the Virgin Mary, by that most prolific of all composers of the era: Anonymous.
Other repertoire ranged right up to the present era with John Rutter's "There is a flow'r." Herbert Howells' "A spotless Rose" turns up frequently this time of year and baritone Jason Awbrey, who sounds more like tenor to these ears, did a fine job with the solo. Probably the most interesting work from a compositional standpoint was Bob Chilcott's 2012 "The Rose in the Middle of Winter." The Baroque era was also represented by Heinrich Schütz' setting of "Hodie Christus natus est." There was also a work in Spanish by the lesser-known Baroque composer, Francisco Guerrero, "A un Niño Llorando."
Two Norwegian composers that are not well known turned up. Trond Kverno's setting of "Ave maris stella" is harmonically fascinating but the music felt disconnected from the text. "O magnum mysterium," by Olga Gjeilo, used the choir as an accompaniment for a mournful cello solo played by Gayane Manasjan Fullford. The text was even more irrelevant in Gjeilo's music, where the syllables themselves are used, separated from the rest of the word.
The program offered concise and helpful program notes and all of the texts. It also contained the music for the Christmas hymns that were done as group singing. Unfortunately, the combination of the crepuscular lighting and the small typeface made it all difficult to read. The choir had the advantage of a pair of Itty Bitty Book Lights on their folders that the audience lacked. The italicized instructions as to who was to sing each verse were illegible, so some confusion ensued. Krehbiel had the audience mumble through the first verse of "Silent Night" in German, but had the choir sing verse two in English. Reversing that would have encouraged more audience participation.
The big problem with the concert, however, was two fold.
First, the program was a collection of church anthems that had little in common except that they were all appropriate for a Christmas concert. And "Christmas," as the name of the concert proclaimed, was exactly what was presented. There wasn't even a hat tip to the Jewish Chanukah, let alone the other celebrants of the winter solstice, such as Kwanza. Further, one anthem after another does not a program make, even if many of them used the simile of the rose in their texts. The Bach Society also recently presented a number of shorter pieces, but wrapped them around one of the sections of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which served as an anchor.
The other hesitation is that on Thursday, even though the program covers hundreds of years, many regional compositional voices and diverse harmonic languages, it all sounded pretty much the same. The cause of this conundrum has to be laid at the feet of Krehbiel. His conducting and rehearsal style has smoothed all the edges off the compositional voices leaving a stream of perfect but indistinct music that lacked any of the personality and peccadilleos of the composers. Maybe the fact that most of the anthems were slow, and we didn't get anything up-tempo until the very end (John Joubert's "Joy in the morning"), contributed to the impeccable, but flatline flow, of the concert.
The concert has two more performances:
- Friday, Dec. 21 at 8pm at Christ Church Plano (Anglican), 4550 Legacy Drive between Coit & Preston, Plano 75024
- Saturday, Dec. 22 at 7:30pm at Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, 6306 Kenwood at Abrams, Dallas 75214