'Tenebrae – Shadows of France'

Ensemble VIII gets dark

Ensemble VIII
Ensemble VIII

I know, I know, Easter isn't even on your radar at this point. You've only just recovered from Mardi Gras, and you have to make it through Texas Independence Day, Rodeo Austin, South by Southwest, St. Patrick's Day, March Madness, and April Fools' before you can get serious about that celebration. While I'm sympathetic to the way March blows in like a lion – hell, a whole pride of big cats, in terms of major events – I'd be remiss not to alert you to a concert of Holy Week-inspired music so inspiring that it might have you wanting to leapfrog over all of this month's secular events to get to the sacred ceremonies of the next.

Ensemble VIII, the professional chorus founded by Butler School of Music director of choral activities James Morrow last spring, is getting a jump (or should that be hop?) on Easter this weekend with Tenebrae – Shadows of France, a program that takes its name from one of the most dramatic of Christian Holy Week services. In it, candles provide the only illumination in the sanctuary, but, as biblical texts are read or sung, they are gradually extinguished until the sanctuary is left in darkness. Composers have long drawn on the tenebrae to create some gloriously sad music, but the French composers of the Baroque era, in distilling the choral efforts of their Renaissance forebears into virtuosic chamber works, intensified the music's beauty. In François Couperin's Trois Leçons de Ténèbres, a pair of high voices (either sopranos or countertenors) wind around each other in ravishingly mournful lines.

With Couperin's masterpiece, Morrow has programmed a pair of similarly exquisite works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Méditations Pour le Carême and Le Reniement de St Pierre. The former, a collection of 10 petits motets drawn mostly from episodes in the Passion of Christ, uses three voices to create compelling drama and moments of profound yearning. The latter, a mini-oratorio recounting Peter's three denials of Christ, amps up the drama even more, with the music and voices twisting in evocation of the anguish experienced by the disciple. Its ending, which has been described as "one of the most wrenching moments in Baroque music," is nonetheless gorgeous. With Ensemble VIII featuring "voices of the highest order," as Michael Kellerman noted in his Chronicle review of the choir's inaugural concert, this program might well plunge you into the most dazzling darkness you've ever known.

Tenebrae – Shadows of France will be performed Saturday, March 3, 7:30pm, at St. Louis Catholic Church Chapel, 7601 Burnet Rd. For more information, visit www.ensembleviii.org.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Ensemble VIII
Seen / Soon: Feb. 2
Seen / Soon: Feb. 2
Hearing a stately Passion from Arvo Pärt sung by Ensemble VIII and reading a Texas take on Moby Dick from Austin author Elizabeth Crook

Feb. 2, 2018

Sacred Shadows – Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories
Sacred Shadows – Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories
Ensemble VIII sang this Renaissance music for Holy Week so feelingly, it conjured shadows in a room full of light

Robert Faires, March 17, 2017

More by Robert Faires
Forklift Danceworks Goes
Forklift Danceworks Goes "On the Job" With Essential Workers
The company's new audio series gives voice to city employees and what they're doing during the pandemic

May 22, 2020

Northern-Southern Gallery's
Northern-Southern Gallery's "Left in Leaves"
This group exhibition frees artwork from lockdown and sends quaratined viewers in search of it

May 22, 2020


Ensemble VIII, Tenebrae: Shadows of France, James Morrow

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle