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They might not be as well known as the King's Singers or Tallis Scholars or Monteverdi Choir, but no one who has heard them can doubt that the Tenebrae Choir is in the same league as the finest choral ensembles in the world. And after hearing the 17 voices perform Russian and Orthodox-related choral works as they did for Duke Performances in Duke Chapel, one would say without hesitation that this group is among the very best. In a little over a decade, Nigel Short, himself a former member of the King's Singers and Tallis Scholars, has more than accomplished his goal of forming a group that can sing with both cathedral-style grandeur and motet-style intimacy.
In a program titled "Rachmaninoff and the Russian Choral Tradition," setting, music, and performance all came together in a glorious conjunction that was inspiring from both a musical sense and a spiritual sense. The music, sung in Russian, Latin and English before a large audience in the chapel, spanned about 100 years of choral composition, but its roots went back much further, deep into the Orthodox musical tradition. Sergei Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (Vespers, Op. 37) was the focal point of the program, with four sections performed, and the program also included the Great Litany from his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and lovely "Cherubic Hymn." The choir also performed works by two of Rachmaninoff's contemporaries, Pavel Chesnokov and Nikolay Kedrov, whose music was equally beautiful. Tchaikovsky's familiar "The Crown of Roses," often sung at Christmas, was part of the program, as were works by contemporary Welsh composer Paul Mealor and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
While the setting of a concert often does not affect the overall enjoyment of a program, Duke Chapel is quite the different environment. The chapel was darkened as the concert began, and the choir sang the opening section of the Vigil, "Come, Let Us Worship God Our King," from the back, and then processed slowly down the center aisle while singing Rachmaninoff's "Great Litany," with Adrian Peacock providing the rich bass lines of the cantor. A small ensemble of men initially sang the responses, then the full ensemble joined in responses, until all had gathered on the steps leading to the sanctuary. The piece ended with a grand "Tebe, Gospodi," or "To you, O Lord," which built to a rousing crescendo before tapering off to a soft "Amin," or "Amen."
The program continued almost without interruption through more than a dozen other compositions, each with its own beauty. The "Cherubic Hymn," sung in an English adaptation by A.M. Henderson, presented a cascading, shimmering sound, with a contrasting "Saints and martyrs" line filled with great bass singing. Rachmaninoff's "Blessed Is the Man," also from the Vigil, featured lovely vocal suspensions in tenor and soprano parts, with the distinctive five-syllable "Alliluya" closing each line. The same seamless soprano-tenor blend highlighted Chesnokov's hymn to Cherubim and contrasted nicely with Vasily Kalinnikov's vigorous "I Will Love Thee," also in an English setting by Henderson.
The choir also performed three works by Paul Mealor, including his "Ubi Caritas," written for the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. The choir handled Mealor's more modern (but not dissonant) harmonies well. The setting for "Locus Iste" recalls some of Morton Lauridsen's scoring, while Mealor's "Salvator Mundi" has soaring lines and nice writing for quartet inside the larger ensemble. Arvo Pärt was represented by an English version of "The Beatitudes," the only work on the program that was accompanied by organ. As in many other selections, Tenebrae Choir had great command over different dynamics; in this work, the gradual buildup of emphasis was barely noticeable until the line "and persecute you," which began a long and bold forte section, leading to a strong "Amen" with full organ accompaniment.
The purity and clarity of tone in all voice parts, and the precise diction, not to mention the smooth and faultless blend of all voices, were marvelous. Rarely did any singer stand out unnecessarily, although when solo or exposed lines were part of the score, the singers delivered on all counts. Soprano Emilia Hughes soared at the end of Mealor's "Locus Iste," following a remarkable exposed line by baritone William Gaunt, who went from the upper end of the range to a low E-flat with ease. Tenor Nicholas Madden's firm and supple voice added considerably to Rachmaninoff's setting of the "Nunc Dimittis," as well as to the "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos" section of the Vigil. The latter has such subtle and soft harmony yet builds to a thrilling crescendo before gradually tapering off to a satisfying decrescendo.
Tenebrae closed the program with Kedrov's setting of the Lord's Prayer and Rachmaninoff's "O Queen of the Heavenly Host," and then offered a lovely encore, "Tebe Poyem," or "We Praise Thee." The voices were as fresh and spot-on at the conclusion of this splendid program as they were at the beginning.
Tenebrae Choir intends to return to this country in the future as a way to gets its name and work more widely known. If the group plans a performance within an hour or two of where you are, run, don't walk, to the venue for one of the most satisfying choral music experiences of your life.