Classical music review: Orpheus Chamber Singers radiant in music from British Isles
Scott Cantrell, the Dallas Morning News
The Orpheus Chamber Singers, Dallas’ superb professional chamber choir, took to North Dallas’ Spring Valley United Methodist Church Saturday night, for the first of two performances of music from the British Isles. For works mostly conceived for quite reverberant churches and cathedrals, the acoustics were hardly cathedral-esque, but the sound was clear and warm.
Music of the Englishman Herbert Howells (1892-1983) provided a pivot point, his 1932/1936 Requiem one of the most sensuous pieces of memorial music ever penned. The words “lux perpetua” spark first an outward radiation of chills-down-the-back harmonies, later a blaze of sonic light.
Artistic director Donald Krehbiel led a performance of exquisite polish and sensitivity, with gorgeous solos from baritone Jason Awbrey and tenor Del Howard. Sarah Griffiths, in the past so radiant a soprano, sounded as if she had a mouthful of cotton, though, and the choir kept dulling vowels in words as different as “the,” “that” and “love” toward a dropped-jaw “ah.”
The choral writing of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s 2000 Mass, to the modern English translation of the traditional texts, takes up where Howells leaves off. But by the Sanctus the harmonies are more stark and dissonant. The organ part, alternating burbles, twitters, crunches and deep rumbles, inhabits a parallel universe, not very convincingly.
The singing was impressively authoritative, and Michael Shake worked wonders with a synthetic-sounding pipe organ. But, written for London’s vast Westminster Cathedral, this is music probably needing lavish reverberation to make its full effect.
Howells was a great admirer of music from England’s Tudor period, nicely represented by two motets by Thomas Tallis. Shake gave a sensitive performance of Howells’ organ homage, Master Tallis’ Testament.
The program ended with three eloquent and nicely contrasted motets by Howells’ teacher, the crusty Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford. Both the Tallis and Stanford motets were lovingly sung, but music meant for choirs of boys and men wanted a brighter, bolder soprano sound.