The Duke Vespers Ensemble is a chamber choir whose main task is to perform Renaissance polyphony and related genres as part of the Choral Vespers service held in Duke Chapel on Thursday evenings during the academic year. The service is a wondrous retreat from the tumultuous world we live in and provides a calming and centering experience that makes the rest of the week go easier. Information about the Vesper Services are found on the Duke Chapel website. The ensemble, conducted by Brian Schmidt, also performs free concerts in the Chapel and other locations in the Durham community.

For this concert the Duke Vespers Ensemble prepared one of the masterpieces of the gifted Spanish composer Tomάs Luis de Victoria. The Requiem was written to commemorate the death of the Dowager Empress Maria, Philip II’s sister and widow of Maximilian II in 1603. It was published in 1605 and was Victoria’s last published work. Set for 6-voice chorus it has been acclaimed as one of Victoria’s finest works and is highly admired for its refined and dignified austerity infused with passionate conviction; it glows with extraordinary fervor within a musical and spiritual atmosphere of transcendent serenity.

In his opening remarks, Schmidt invited the audience to enter into the calming experience of the music with the choir and those who sang it previously in Duke Chapel as well as those who heard it in early 17th century Madrid. Subtly bathed in soft blue light, Duke Chapel was filled with ethereal and magical sounds. The chorus and instrumentalists (the chorus was joined by the UNC Sackbut Ensemble) were spread across the front of the chapel with the only light the reflection from their music in an otherwise darkened chapel. The focus of the performance was not the singers but the music, and it was special because of the singers. They were obviously chosen because of ability and vocal quality and are well-trained in the art of Renaissance polyphony.

Victoria began his service with a Lesson from the Office of Matins (Job 10:1-7): “My soul is weary of my life.” The first sound was so perfectly in tune and so perfectly attacked that it was hard to tell where the sound came from – Above? In front? All around? Indeed, in the environment of Duke Chapel the sound was everywhere.

With the opening words of the Requiem, the UNC Sackbut Ensemble joined the Duke Vespers Ensemble, and the sound was breath-taking. On the words “et lux perpetua luceat eis,” it seemed as though shafts of musical light ascended above. The overlapping of the phrase “Exaudi orationem meam” was surely intended to reach to the throne of God and undoubtedly does.

Then the ancient core of Christian worship: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.” In Victoria’s hands, not so much a plea with arms held up for protection, as an acknowledgement of human imperfection. The “Christe” with just the upper voices was so sad that it seemed like ritualized weeping in music.

There was a rich Offertorium and a majestic Sanctus followed by a gentle and beautiful Agnus Dei. The Lux Aeterna had dramatic harmonic shifts that emphasized the line “for you are merciful.” Throughout the requiem the weaving of musical poetry was calming, reassuring and uplifting.

Frequent dissonant passing tones underlined the sorrow and sadness of grief. The singing was superb with excellent ensemble; attacks and cutoffs were precisely together. Swells and diminuendos were balanced, and the musical blend ideal. The sackbuts (an alto, two tenors and a base) added a richness to the blend.

Having ended the Mass, Victoria continues with Alfonso Lobo’s masterful motet “Versa est in luctum,” and here the musical tears are gently falling in descending lines of polyphonic wonder. The Absolution follows, and Victoria’s setting of the great “Libera me, Domine” concludes, with its Kyrie responses slipping away quietly and reassuringly.

After the final Kyrie, the audience sat in perfect silence for several moments; perhaps no one wanted to break the spell of the awesome music. And then, as one, applause filled the chapel with gratitude and appreciation.

All of this added up to one of those memorable, magical, special experiences in Duke Chapel: the Monteverdi Vespers, the MacMillan St. Luke Passion, the Britten War Requiem just to mention a few. This performance will go down in the same book of treasured memories.