TENEBRAE, de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Nov. 1
A few things impressed themselves upon me almost immediately last night as I watched Tenebrae perform at Brigham Young University. First, I could let go of whatever critical anxiety I brought to the performance. Second, if for no other reason, the sound of the basses alone made the music worthwhile.
There’s a quality to these great British choirs that you don’t hear anywhere else – a richness and fullness in the lower range. We got to hear plenty of that timbre as the choir, directed by Nigel Short, opened with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Great Litany, which included extended chants for a solo bass.
The selection by Rachmaninoff also set a tone for the entire evening. With the exception of several pieces by Paul Mealor, every composer in the program was Slavic. And the chant of the bass established a contemplative and sacred mood.
Being a smaller chamber choir, Tenebrae manages a near perfect balance between seamless blending and distinct color among their voices. This unique combination of tone was put to great effect in a selection from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, “Blessed is the Man.” Each statement in the piece was punctuated with an “Alleluia,” and that punctuation showed the emotional and spiritual breadth of both the word and the choir.
The first set of Mealor pieces presented a charming and impressive display of range. From dazzling ostinatos from the sopranos to palpable harmonies, Tenebrae performed a sort of vocal ballet. In “Upon a Bank with Roses,” the choir left behind traditional counterpoint and instead relied on precisely controlled trills to reveal their dance.
Then the BYU Concert Choir joined Tenebrae for one of the greatest numbers of the night, Mealor’s “Salvator mundi.” When I first saw that the Concert Choir was joining them, I was a little irritated. I’m familiar with the Concert Choir’s sound, and it’s great, but they were not the ones I was there to hear. But the piece itself has a division between four soloists and the rest of the choir, and the addition of the BYU group helped to emphasize that distinction.
The piece is further divided in the text. The Latin is a prayer for aid, while the English is a quotation from John, “Greater love hath no man than this….” The soloists sing impassioned embellishments while the choir sings a much steadier, slower line beneath them. It came off as a convincing metaphor for faith and the kind of love John was writing about. Both would require moments of rhapsodic passion (as suggested by the soloists), but equally necessary would be a long, sustained, and almost placid assurance.
After intermission, the BYU Singers joined Tenebrae. This was a less perfect union. I will pay the Singers this compliment – they didn’t take away from Tenebrae’s performance. But they were superfluous. Short announced that he had been working with the two BYU choirs for the past two days, so I suppose this was the special treat for the Singers at the end of their training. As I said, it didn’t detract from the concert.
Then Tenebrae sang “The Beatitudes” by Arvo Pärt. This was the only piece of the evening that wasn’t purely a cappella, but the organ provided little accompaniment aside from long, sustained pedal notes. The organ has always struck me as a good stand-in for eternity. The ease and grace with which it can sustain a note virtually indefinitely is unrivaled in the family of acoustic instruments. At the conclusion of the singing, the organ erupted into a dazzling solo, which felt almost like an apotheosis.
And then it was back to more Mealor and a group of Russian composers. Perhaps the strangest piece of the night was Tchaikovsky’s “Legend (The Crown of Roses).” It was originally one of Tchaikovsky’s art songs. It was odd mostly because it sounded more like an African spiritual in both text and music than it did a piece of Russian romanticism. The story is that some children chide a young Jesus for making garlands of roses, so they take the thorns and make a crown to put on his head. But the minor melody and the couplet rhyme scheme could have convinced me that it was an old American spiritual.
The evening ended with one last selection by Rachmaninoff. Hearing the great Russian master’s choral works is a distinct pleasure. So much of his oeuvre is overflowing with complex orchestration and massive walls of sound, but his choral works expose a sensitivity and intimacy to his writing that one rarely hears in his large-scale works.
I almost wrote that seeing a concert of this magnitude at a university was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and although it was certainly magnificent, that is an empirical exaggeration because violinist Hilary Hahn is coming to campus in just two weeks with the Utah Symphony. This is shaping up to be a pretty good season at the BYU.