The Duke Vespers Ensemble is a select group of exceptionally fine singers specializing in Renaissance and 20th-century motets. It is directed by Allan Friedman, Associate Conductor of the Duke Chapel Choir. Their winter concert in Duke Chapel consisted of Renaissance and 20th century sacred music relating to the birth of Jesus. The three contemporary composers represented on the program each displayed a clear affinity to the soaring music of the Renaissance.

The free concert was sparsely attended which proved a special bonus for those who braved the cold evening; the chapel reverb was more lively than when the chapel is full. It sounded very nearly like a Cistercian cathedral, famously known for their almost echo-like reverberation.

The opening piece, “Alleluya, verbum caro factus est” by Antoine Busnoys (1430-92) set the tone for the concert. A setting of John 1:1, it ascended throughout the chapel and commingled in an ethereal tapestry the mystery of the incarnation. This was followed by “Adam Lay Y-bounden” by Frank Ferko (b.1950). This, the only piece on the program new to this writer, uses a setting of an anonymous medieval text. Ferko has the sopranos soaring above the other voice parts through much of the piece, giving it an other-worldly quality.

Josquin Des Prez’s “Ave Maria, virgo serena” is always an amazing treat for the ears. Taken at a stately and measured pace, the performance allowed the overlapping entrances to jell into their sweet harmonies and occasional enticing dissonances. The homophonic passages provided warm and comfortable contrasts. Next, William Byrd’s setting of Isaiah’s prophecy (quoted in the Gospel according to Matthew) “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, …” more intricately developed in lush five-part writing, was sung in luxuriant expressiveness.

Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer born in 1935, is one of the widely recognized creators of sacred music of the past forty years or so. His style, which falls loosely under the general heading of minimalism, is based on the tones and overtones of bells. Strongly influenced by music of the renaissance, his “Magnificat” is a transcendent setting of Mary’s poetic response to the angel’s announcement that she will bear the Son of God. Shimmering stand-alone dissonances, almost whispered, give way to great pronouncements of the role of He that is to come. It was sung with superb control and balance and was an awesome portrayal of the mystery and the majesty of the incarnation.

Heinrich Schultz’s “Tröstet, tröstet mein Volk” (Comfort, comfort my people), the only piece on the program not sung in Latin, is an excellent example of his extraordinary text-painting in German approximately one hundred years before J. S. Bach. “Resonate in laudibus” by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), based on an old Bohemian folk-song, was sung with rhythmic vigor and exquisite counterpoint, communicating the joy of receiving the Virgin’s child.

“Vox in Rama” by Jacquet Clemens (“non papa”) (c.1510 – c1555) is a remarkable lament full of stark harmonies and dissonances with descending phrases designed to express the grief of the mothers of Israel weeping for their slaughtered first-born children.  “Lux aurumque” has gained great recognition as the first production of the internet’s “Virtual Choir.” The simple Latin text relates “Light, warm and heavy as pure gold” through thick tone-clusters and unhurried pacing as the angels sing softly to the newborn baby.

The program closed with Tomás Luis de Victoria’s masterful “O magnum mysterium.” One of the gems of the high renaissance, it expresses the fullness and completeness of the incarnation that includes even the animals in the manger. This choir and its outstanding director provided a delicious pleasure on the aural pallet in Duke Chapel. This is the kind of music that is perfectly at home in this setting and Friedman and these singers are masters of it. The audience expressed its appreciation with vigorous and sustained applause and was rewarded with an encore: Duke graduate student Paul Leary’s rich and gracious setting of “Nunc dimittis,” “Lord, lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”