Friday evening’s performance at University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square marked the beginning of the Oriana Consort’s 20th season. A preface in the program noted marked the humble beginning of the ensemble—after an unfortunate hiatus in 1993-1994, director Walter Chapin returned to his small group of singers with Thomas Morley’s 1601 Triumphs of Oriana—which would eventually lend its name to the then fledgling ensemble. Under the leadership of Walter Chapin and, more recently, assistant conductor Caroline Harvey, the ensemble has grown and expanded to its current number of roughly 30 singers, equally comfortable with a cappella works from the Renaissance or 20th century as they were with the richly orchestrated English Baroque.
“Muse of Midwinter: Carols and an anthem from England” preferred familiar works to more challenging fare; at the center were Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and GF Handel’s Let God Arise. Upon returning to England from a brief trip to the United States in 1942, Britten set for treble voices and harp 11 poems from a book of Middle English verse he picked up prior to boarding. Oriana’s used a subsequent setting of the work by Julius Harrison that expanded the tonal palette to full chorus and a broader spectrum from the harp. Despite some rich writing for both choir and harp, Ceremony favors spareness, emphasizing melody over intricate counterpoint or rich accompaniment. The contrast with Handel’s Let God Arise, for orchestra, full chorus and soloists, could not have been greater: this anthem finds Handel at his Italianate peak, having newly migrated to England to write for the court of James Brydges, the 1st Duke of Chandos. For one of the so-called Chandos anthems, Handel set the text of Psalm 68 using choral, solo and small ensemble textures. As with many of the composer’s works, the original setting (HWV 256a) was the basis of a repurposed, shorter version that would follow shortly after (HWV256b). Oriana’s performance took this second version as its basis, albeit seamlessly supplementing it with favorite movements from the extended version.
Three short works from the early English choral tradition. Benedicamus Domino of Peter Warlock, Carowle for Christmas Day of William Byrd, and Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells, set the scene at the opening, offering a sampling of the sound-world that gave birth to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Three modern miniatures by John Rutter closed the program: Wexford Carol, Angel’s Carol, and What Sweeter Music. Rutter’s simple melodies and affable settings refreshed us for the coming holiday season.
The burden of conducting Friday’s concert was split between director Walter Chapin and assistant conductor Caroline Harvey, with very different approaches and results. Chapin’s approached the ensemble with more steadiness and deliberateness. His pausing between each of Britten’s 11 carols instead of taking them in a continuous arc gave Ceremony an overly-cautious feeling. Yet this conservative, measured interpretation also produced precision in tuning and dynamics that lent a confidence to the work. Rutter’s carols also fared well, arriving with a full sound that satisfyingly filled the nave.
Preferring swifter, more daring tempi, Harvey pushed the ensemble vividly, coaxing a wider dynamic range. At times she seemed to rush Warlock’s and Howell’s works, though Handel’s anthem fared particularly well under her, not only displaying more vitality, but also achieving a supple balance between chorus and orchestra, particularly in the solo movements.
The chorus responded well to both conductors. The spare University Lutheran Church in no ways glosses over even the smallest sonic blemishes. Despite the obvious hard work of the chorus, this sometimes revealed slightly out of tune passages or blends that lacked finish or sheen that may have been present in other venues. Regardless, the chorus showed poise throughout the entire evening, particularly when paired with the various instrumentalists. Play on period instruments for Handel’s anthem switched to modern instruments during Rutter’s What Sweeter Music. Harpist Franziska Huhn was also featured prominently throughout the evening in both Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Rutter’s Angels’ Carol).
Significant solo work came from members of the chorus. Baritones Peter Zhu and Alex Conway, played major roles in Howells’s Spotless Rose and Rutter’s Wexford Carol, respectively. Zhu has a surprisingly resonant voice that comported well with the Howell’s sensitive setting; Conway’s baritone is more delicate, favoring the lyrical line that made him a better match with Rutter’s setting of the Wexford Carol. Alyssa Marshall, Kathryn Low, Felicity Salmon, and Lauren Syer played major roles in Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. In particular, Marshall’s clear soprano in Balulalow was a particularly haunting. In Handel’s anthem,: baritone Zachary Lenox, also Kathryn Currie and soprano Erica Maas contributed memorable performances. Lenox in particular has a broad, resonant baritone that is exquisitely controlled throughout his entire range. Sensitive in Handel’s solo passages, he was well-paired with alto Katheryn Currie in a duet movement. Despite her wine-dark timbre and her lower range, Currie produced a clear, penetrating tone that pervaded the entire chapel.
The Oriana Consort repeats this program at the First Lutheran Church of Boston on December 15th.