Program books for choir concerts are typically thick with texts, translations, notes, personnel and advertisements. As I’ve observed in my more than a decade of singing in choirs, listeners at said concerts often spend the entire duration with their noses buried in these weighty tomes. Boston Choral Ensemble has wised to this phenomenon, wants to save some trees, or both. There were no notes or translations to be found in the single-sheet program for Long, Long Night, the conclusion to their 2014-2015 season; instead, texts appeared and disappeared on a projection screen next to the singers. The fortunate audience in the South End’s Holy Cross Cathedral Sunday had no choice but to look up.
The auditioned ensemble’s approximately 35 members are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Since joining as artistic director four years ago, Andrew Shenton has built programs consistently been heavy on the music of his native England, but Sunday’s was by no means monotonous. The singers confidently presented the dreamily jagged textures of John Tavener (1944-2013) and the soaring supplications of John Taverner (1490-1545). If you’re feeling confused by those names, try teleporting from Art of Europe at the MFA to the fifth floor of the ICA, and that might produce a similar effect to that of hearing Taverner and Tavener back to back.
The choir softly set the atmosphere with Tavener’s O do not move, a brief, deceptively simple carol with a haunting drone on the bottom. In the cavernous nave, the simple fact of the sound’s expansion, movement, and decay into nothingness became transcendent, an object for reflection and awe. Taverner’s Leroy Kyrie and Audivi vocem de caelo venientem then sweetened the air with rich, imitative polyphony. The “i/ee” vowel of “Kyrie” and “Christe,” which elsewhere is so often stretched wide into the grotesque, was tall and satisfying. The trebles contributed some especially graceful chant interludes to Audivi vocem. Each phrase shaped itself as naturally as water falling over stones.
Assistant conductor Kira Winter took the helm for Tavener’s Byzantine-infused Song for Athene, a collection of quietly sorrowful polyphonic fragments alternating with a unison “alleluia” refrain. Though the sections are clearly demarcated and discernible even without the ensemble’s projected titles, there were no sharp edges in this rendition, and the swell to the piece’s apex was especially seamless. The contrast with the joyful, imitative peals of Taverner’s Dum transisset Sabbatum couldn’t have been more drastic. “Alleluia” sounded like a different word in a different language. Shenton’s conducting was subdued throughout; where others would have flailed, he barely flicked his fingers to cue the singers.
Balint Karosi, the winner of the BCE’s 2014 commission competition, arrived by bicycle to hear his Song of Wandering Aengus. Text painting defined the wistful meander through Yeats’s poem, and the ensemble’s consistently straight and unaffected style of singing suited it well.
Three wildly varied selections from Tavener’s Ex Maria Virgine closed out the afternoon. Bright vocal fanfares held their own against the clamorous organ accompaniment (played by Winter) in Ave rex angelorum. Remember, O thou man sounded instinctive even with key changes around every corner. Only “Nowell! Nowell!” faltered; the swells of organ subsumed the voices at their peak, and the unison staccato vowels at the end of each phrase were on the ragged side. The multicolored harmonic world of Tavener does not easily forgive tiring voices.
The ensemble will repeat the concert at Holy Cross on Saturday, June 13th at noon in an encore performance as part of the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe. There probably won’t be any better opportunities to make sure you’ll never mix up Tavener and Taverner again.