'Tenebrae – Shadows of France'
Ensemble VIII gets dark
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.