Sonam (Singers of New and Ancient Music – printed in the program as a word, not an acronym) is a gathering of sixteen very fine young singers organized in 2012. They are under the direction of Allen Friedman, whose relaxed and convivial style and demand for excellence are obviously moving forces. At the Chapel in the Pines in Chatham County, they presented a well-balanced program consisting of three motets by the Renaissance master Orlande de Lassus, a haunting piece by Arvo Pärt, two of a three-song set by Huub de Lange, and J. S. Bach’s magnificent Cantata No. 4.

You may see the name of Orlande de Lassus spelled in several different ways depending on which country is referencing him. His fame and influence in the latter half of the 16th century were deservedly wide-spread. “Resonet in laudibus” celebrates the birth of Christ with a popular Christmas tune in a striking polyphonic setting. Sonam declared its mastery of this music with outstanding ensemble singing – vigorous unified attacks, phrases well molded to the whole, and clean cut-offs. The second motet, “In monte Oliveti,” relates Christ’s prayer in the garden before he was arrested. It is written in a low tessitura underlying the somber struggle taking place. Here the chorus sang with rich sustained tones, blended together with impeccable intonation and supported by the marvelous sound of just three powerful basses. “Regina coeli laetare” is a Marian antiphon to be sung at Eastertide in which Mary rejoices at the resurrection of Jesus. Lassus, at the height of his powers, divides the choir into seven parts, blending the discrete melody of each part into a sublime unity.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) was deeply influenced by Renaissance music. Add to this his unique approach to harmony, which he calls “tintinabuli” (music based on the tones and overtones of bells), and you have the essence of his 1977 creation, “Summa.” It is a setting of the text of the Credo in a mystical alternation between consonant and dissonant resonances and is a challenge for any vocal ensemble. Sonam sang with a steady and nuanced blend of voices which was enhanced by Friedman’s arrangement of mixed voice parts rather than the typical sectional arrangement.

Next on the program were two of the three pieces comprising Dutch composer Huub de Lange’s (b.1955) Drei Goethe Lieder. “Meeresstille” describes the emotional state of a sailor adrift on a vast sea without a wisp of wind. The calm music allows for the underlying anxiety of being helpless with subtle harmonic changes. Sonam was especially impressive in this piece. “Die Erlkönig” takes a different approach to the terror of the ominous creature than that taken by Schubert in his famous Lied. Rather than the ominous repeated runs in the accompaniment used by Schubert, de Lange employs harmonic and vocal technics in the unaccompanied chorus. For example, the sopranos, singing the words of the boy in a high register, convey his terror quite effectively. The panic of the father hurrying to get his sick son home is conveyed through intense harmony and delayed cadences. When hearing this text, it is hard not to be drawn back to the brilliance of Schubert’s setting, but this is a worthy alternate approach and was very well done.

An ensemble of skillful local string players along with the invaluable Jane Lynch (continuo and accompanist) provided instrumental musicianship for the performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden.

We are quite used to the magnificence of Bach’s music: its harmonic truth, the perfection of form, the magic of his counterpoint and fugues. Yet, apart from a few popular gorgeous melodies, we sometimes forget the lyricism not only in the leading line but in the inner parts. In a brief pre-performance talk, Friedman had some of the choir members and instrumentalists illustrate this by singing or playing their parts separately and then putting them back together again as a resplendent whole. This awareness was clearly present throughout the work and contributed to making this a truly inspired performance.

The opening Sinfonia was shaped to set the emotional stage for the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death. Verse 1 was powerful ,and the Alleluia was soaring. In verse 2, a soprano and alto duet with some of the most delicious suspensions in all of music was poignantly beautiful. In Verse 3, a thrilling tenor solo was marvelously sung by all the tenors. Verse 4, for full chorus, was a triumphant dance of victory, Verse 5, sung by all the bases in unison, was a showcase of vocal gymnastics. Verse 6, for sopranos and tenors, was a stirring summing up of the joys of the Easter Festival. Verse 7 brought the music and the Easter festival to a fitting conclusion with a chorale and a stately Alleluia. Throughout the cantata, the singing and the playing were warm with lyrical joy, well measured and focused with precise ensemble.

The audience responded with enthusiastic and sustained applause and was rewarded with a beautiful piece by Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo). His setting of the lovely Latin hymn “Ubi caritas” was a delight to hear. It was full of warm, rich harmonies and dissonances that melted into chords of perfect rest. This is the kind of music that enriches our souls and makes us more human. Long live Sonam!