Ensemble Altera shone forth brightly with “Dazzling Light” within Providence, Rhode Island’s Blessed Sacrament Church Sunday afternoon. (The show also ran previous evening at St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge.) The beautifully written handout offered an essay on the theme of light, its symbolism and significance from many perspectives and cultural imaginings, all of which gave inspiration and foundation to the wide range of choral selections that so sensitively and cleanly portrayed radiance and joy. Under the articulate direction of Christopher Lowrey, the ensemble offered a most perfect blending of voices, made radiant and effervescent in the sumptuous acoustic and beauty of the Renaissance revival architecture sanctuary with its LaFarge windows and reproduction of Raphael’s ‘Disputata’ in the apse. The choir changed its configuration to achieve the optimum sound tailored specifically for each work and further benefited from the solid and precise organ playing of John Black, whose registrations blended into one glorious symphonic sound with the choir.
In Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars, with texts drawn from the Book of Amos and Psalm 139, Black’s organ passages scintillated. Dove has fashioned a new sound with clusters of sound and lines that grow outward suggesting the expanding universe, musical sighs that suggest the breath of life, and suspensions and dissonances that often resolve upward, these finely nuanced and delivered with a clear and articulate precision that propelled the listener forward in anticipation as the sounds of creation built into an extasy of joyful light before subsiding into serenity and peace.
In an homage to Herbert Howells, John Rutter’s mysterious opening to the double choir Hymn to the Creator of Light also recalls Genesis through the poetry of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). Rutter gives homage to the entire panoply of music, with textures reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox Church, romantic lines recalling Brahms, and a quote from a chorale of Bach.
Pieces by Thomas Tallis, resident singer Michael Garrepy, and Matthew Martin, all taken from the Gregorian Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum, succeeded each other as one work, with changes of the choral configuration flawlessly executed during sections of plainchant. Among the three settings were two alternate chant tunes and different sets of verses, as well as a flavoring of evolving musical styles and textures. Garrepy’s setting, the first of three world premieres to be offered, began almost as a sequel to Tallis’s, with the chant prominently displayed among all voices, but gradually shifted to a richer and thicker texture with more complex chords, often juxtaposing major and minor thirds together, sometimes against the more Renaissance-like stepwise polyphonic lines. The Martin, by contrast, used the alternate chant tune set more in choral style with organ accompaniment. After building in intensity, an unusual twist found the organ in the final verse with moving lines against a unison chant, the only polyphony being the concluding Amen, which subsides into a serene and peaceful, barely voiced final syllable.
Acclaimed choirmaster and conductor David Hill supplied solo and duo lines against eight-part chordal textures in his Dominus illuminatio, a setting of Psalm 27, described as “a marriage between traditional plainchant psalmody and the Anglican tradition” so beautiful that alas, being so short we were left wanting more. The first half closed with two beautiful and more progressive works, Joanna Marsh’s Evening Prayer drawing again on texts of Lancelot Andrewes, and the premiere of Toby Young’s setting of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Light, gifting a lush romantic melody with jazz infused chords adding animated sections with rhythmic pulses on a single note and joining with the organ to close out the work.
The audience was still noisily milling about for the interval when suddenly Charles Wood’s Hail, gladdening light pealed forth from the rear balcony, surprising all who quickly scrambled back to their seats to enjoy the rich dialogue of this double choir motet from England’s Oxford Revival of the early 20th century. To Black’s exhilarating improvisation, the choir processed down to the front of the church for the remainder of the program, which again offered more delightful surprises.
Johannesburg native Motshwane Pege, winner of Altera’s Third Composition Competition, provided the next surprise during the premiere of his In principio. Opening with a simple triadic motive sequencing itself polyphonically as it evolved into a tintinnabulum of unfolding harmony, revealing the glories of creation from a dynamic young composer on the world scene. Lowrey’s clear and nuanced treatment unfolded with sensitivity and awareness to the properties of space and time to the proper delivery of text. The work was most enthusiastically received by the nearly full house in attendance.
Tokyo-based Ko Matsushita’s O lux beata Trinitas featured a lively pulsating rhythmic figure over open chords driving the piece forward to a stunning build-up of sound. Sadly, the acoustic which served so well for the rest of the concert, muddied the rapidly moving text to the point of inaudibility. Thankfully, all the texts were printed in the program, and this one is somewhat familiar as one of the Office Hymns attributed to Ambrose of Milan.
Altera then channeled the beautiful strains of Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations in John Cameron’s choral setting of the text from the Mass for the Dead Lux aeterna “Let perpetual light shine upon them…”. William Harris’s Bring us, o lord, Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, and then the Nunc Dimittis from Herbert Howells’s St. Paul’s Service: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…,” closed out the sonic feast of exquisite sound for this magnificent ensemble.
One final surprise remained, an encore of Hail, gladdening light, this time the choir surrounding the audience from the perimeter isles of the church, made the dialogue between the two choirs even more exquisitely pronounced.
We left, in the words of Eric Routley, entirely “lit up.”