Under the direction of Walter Chapin, the Oriana Consort has evolved from a group of about 12 singers into a chorus of 25. Although rehearsals are conducted a capella, for the performance at the Swedenborgian Chapel in Cambridge on Sunday, March 29, they played with a baroque string ensemble of seven players. The singers have light, practically vibrato-less voices, which were matched by delicate phrasing and balance in the ensemble. The result – when it all comes together – can be heavenly.
Arvo Pärt’s setting of the story in Matthew of the woman with the precious ointment, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997), is full of unusual tone clusters that were sung with purity of tone and pitch. The resulting “tintinabulation” – caused by non-linear distortion in the ear – was easily heard and strangely beautiful.
The soprano section singing the choral tune in J.S. Bach’s “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (1707) was equally wonderful, sailing over the counterpoint like the boy choir in the opening of the St. Matthew Passion. Melanie Armstrong and Laura Betinis were charming in the verse two duet of the Bach, as were many of the other soloists, all drawn from the chorus.
The high point of the program was Frank Ticheli’s a capella setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There will be rest.” The piece opens with disturbing clusters of notes, which resolve in and out of tonal harmony. The text is always primary. Both the voices of the Oriana and the setting of the music enhanced the power of the poem with frightening intensity.
Other pieces on the program were Surgens Jesus Dominus by Peter Philips (ca. 1560-1628), Pärt’s Which was the Son of …. (2000), De profundis by Michel-Richard Delalande (composed in 1724). and Choral Songs for Passover by Yehezkel Braun (b. 1922).
Not everything on the program worked well, but Chapin and the chorus get considerable credit for a fascinating collection of seldom-heard music.