Chapel of St. Louis Catholic Church, 7601 Burnet Rd.
Only a brave soul would launch a new ensemble with a concert on Friday the 13th. Such was the case as James Morrow led the other seven vocalists of Ensemble VIII in its maiden voyage before a packed, curious audience in the chapel of St. Louis Catholic Church. Morrow recently said, "There's no bad time for making good music." For his sake and that of his nascent group, Friday's enchanting performance showed that there's no unlucky time, either.
Morrow, a professor at the University of Texas' Butler School of Music, conceived of Ensemble VIII during the "What now?" days that followed his achievement of tenure at UT. Consisting of just eight singers, the group is arranged to mimic the performance standards of the Renaissance and Baroque periods: bass, tenor, countertenor, and soprano. Morrow's mission – to draw a spotlight to the vast canon of Renaissance and Baroque vocal music and make it accessible to a fresh audience – is ambitious and exciting.
The chapel was set up with the audience in two groups facing each other with a grand aisle in-between, creating an enjoyably interactive atmosphere. Throughout the evening, the audience members watched not only the performers but also one another, effectively stripping the performance of any rigid formality and drawing the focus instead to the communal experience of the music.
And ah, the music. As the first notes of Johannes Ockeghem's "Salve Regina" floated up into the cavernous chapel, it was clear that Morrow had assembled singers of the highest order. Sopranos Carrie Henneman Shaw and Melanie Russell shone in this opening piece, sweetly capturing the themes that billowed up from the voices below and repeating them with clear and rapturous tone. Also memorable was superstar-of-his-day Josquin des Prez's "Missa de Beata Virgine." Tenors Donald Meineke and Paul D'Arcy were outstanding throughout and displayed tremendous control in the Gloria movement. In the Agnus Dei, the spotlight shifted to the two countertenors, Ryland Angel and John Bradford Bohl, each of whom were given unique solo material. I suspect many in the audience, myself included, hadn't experienced countertenors in some time. The two resulting rich and soulful performances were an awesome reminder of the countertenor's unique role in Western music history.
The night's highlight was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's lovely "Stabat Mater," for which the eight members broke into two choirs and performed facing each other. The unity of the group could have suffered from having only one vocalist on each part, but the opposite was true. The performers reveled in the challenge and gave a thrilling performance that was easily the night's best.
There were some weaker sections, however, that reminded us that these choristers are new to singing together. In John Sheppard's "Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria," the soprano voices were often overwhelmed, creating an imbalance in the piece's denser moments. This problem persisted in the des Prez piece as well.
Almost entirely sacred in nature and relatively simple harmonically, Renaissance and Baroque choral music possess ethereal, otherworldly qualities that are entirely accessible to new ears. I invited to the concert a friend who I know enjoys new experiences but who I suspect would have balked at going to a program of Renaissance and Baroque choral music. I told him to trust me; he loved the concert. I expect this will be the challenge for Morrow as he builds on this promising start: The experience of this music doesn't parallel the perception that many people have of it. One convincing performance down, here's to a bright future for Ensemble VIII.
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