Composer-Conductor Eric Whitacre and his Singers were greeted by the sold-out audience in Duke University’s Chapel not only by applause, but by cheers and whistles befitting his “rock star” status, a rarity in the world of classical choral music. As he said in his opening remarks as he looked out at the SRO crowd, “All this, for choral music?!” There were far more young faces in the audience than one usually sees at concerts of classical music these days, a welcome sign that youth is served not only by high-wattage, loudspeaker-driven performances. Indeed, Whitacre’s appeal to younger people can be seen and heard in his creation of a 2,000-voice “virtual choir,” combining voices from over one-hundred countries through the magic of the Internet and as many phone and other video cameras as there were singers involved.

This was the first concert of an extensive tour featuring music which Whitacre designed as “Music for Sacred Spaces.” His eighteen singers performed ten a capella choral works, six composed by Whitacre himself, treating Duke Chapel’s resonant acoustic as a canvas on which they painted sounds as impressionistic as any Monet or Manet work. At night, there is no light coming through the Chapel’s stained-glass windows, but the room was bathed in colors of choral sound as the singers created beauty from dissonances once forbidden to composers. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of the appeal of music like Whitacre’s (not only his, but others such as Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener): its tonal language is not really new, but adventurous, weaving together consonance and dissonance which speak to a modern life required more and more to reconcile living dissonances with more peaceful existence. Such adventurousness isn’t new, either, but only rare, reminiscent of Don Carlo Gesualdo’s Italian Renaissance compositions, far ahead of their time in their harmonic language.

Walt Whitman wrote, “Darest thou now, O Soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region, where neither ground is, nor any path to follow?” Whitacre’s singers venture into that “unknown region,” taking his listeners along for the exploration. Beginning with his already-well-known “Lux Aurumque,” the program continued with Whitacre”s “Sainte-Chapelle,” in which the poem by the composer’s long-time friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, imagines the stained-glass angels of the famous Parisian chapel singing to “an innocent girl.” Again, light becomes sound; sound becomes color, a recurring theme in this program bourne out by the next work, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg‘s “Mouayoum.” Hillborg’s wordless music is intended to evoke the colors of the Aurora Borealis. Those hues, moving in the sky without pattern, were heard as moving clusters of sound, many minor seconds woven together in a work which is extremely difficult to sing but which appeared to present no difficulties to Whitacre’s sublimely-confident singers. Its eleven minutes seemed, to my ears, to be several minutes too long, as Hillborg creates his sonic canvas, fills it with colors, and then, just as the Aurora fades away, it returns, only to fade away a second time.

Two more Whitacre compositions followed: his 2001 “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” and “A Boy and a Girl.” “Leonardo,” another collaboration with poet Silvestri, appropriately channels Monteverdi as it pictures da Vinci being urged on, in his dreams, by a voice saying, Leonardo, vieni á volare! Leonardo, sognare!” (“Leonardo, come fly! … Dream!”) This is a delightfully imaginative poem with music that fits it perfectly, even to the brief use of a music stand in lieu of a drum. “A Boy and a Girl,” set to Muriel Rukeyser’s English translation of Octavio Paz’s poem, is poignant music for a poignant text; coupled with “Come, Sweet Death,” Edwin London’s transmogrification of J.S. Bach’s chorale, the two works led the listeners through the “valley of the shadow of death,” again revealing music’s power to deal with the end of life not with fear, but with contemplation. As Bach’s harmonies mutated to what James Potter’s program notes described as “fascinating and unpredictable consonances and dissonances,” Whitacre stepped aside, letting his singers create what is, practically speaking, un-conductable music. The chorale melody was still present, but often hidden amidst the constantly-moving clusters of sound.

After intermission, the whole of the “sacred space” of Duke Chapel was host to Gregorio Allegri’s famous Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51 particularly appropriate for the eve of Ash Wednesday, for which it is the appointed Psalm. The main body of singers were at the foot of the chancel steps, a second choir of four singers were at the back of the nave, and a single cantor intoned the plainsong verses from the farthest end of the chancel/choir space. With no amplification necessary, every word clear, and every pitch pure, the quartet and the cantor moved slowly toward the main body of singers as the work progressed. The celebrated “high Cs” (musicologists debate the authenticity of this part of the work, but it’s become traditional) were sung beautifully, authentic or not.

This oldest music on the program was followed by the newest: Whitacre’s “You Rise, I Fall,” a part of a planned major work to be called “The Sacred Veil.” Again, “Tony” Silvestri’s words provide the inspiration for Whitacre’s music, as the poet’s words deal with the death of his wife Julie at age 35 from ovarian cancer. The passage already completed is intensely personal and intensely moving; if reading it can bring tears, hearing Whitacre’s music underscores not only its emotional words, but its searing anguish.

The concert closed with Whitacre’s early work, composed while still a student, his setting of seventeenth-century poet Edmund Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose.” His conducting was a model of efficiency, never histrionic, as his hands were the brushes which transferred the colors of his palette of singers into the sounds of beauty which adorned Duke Chapel’s sacred space.

As an encore, we heard “Sleep,” another collaboration with Silvestri; as the singers’ repeated “sleep!” faded away into the highest recesses of the Gothic vaulting, it was a second occasion for a well-deserved standing ovation from the appreciative audience. A “virtual choir” performance of this work may be seen and heard on the composer’s website.

Whitacre is a sound-painter on the canvas of the human spirit. While many of his works remind us of the mediaeval antiphon, Media vita in morte sumus (“In the midst of life, we are in death”), his singers remind us also that life triumphs, a message to be cherished in the midst of a troubled world.