18th Street Singers serve up heartening evening of early music

Sun Dec 11, 2016 at 12:51 pm
Ben Olinsky led the 18th Street Singers Saturday night at the the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes.

Ben Olinsky led the 18th Street Singers Saturday night at the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes.

Evidence is mounting that the audience for classical music is shrinking. Hypotheses abound: the education system has failed young people by not teaching them about music; the millennial generation do not go to live concerts; the rituals of the concert hall are too outdated and stuffy.

So it was refreshing, at the concert by the 18th Street Singers Saturday night at the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes, to see a large group of young adults singing unaccompanied choir music from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The group of fifty volunteers, formed in 2004, is not paid to sing. They give up their time to rehearse and perform mostly early music because they enjoy singing it and want to bring this music to others. The organization, according to one of their press releases, feels the task is a worthy one, “especially in light of current events around our nation and the world.” Equally heartening, this performance drew a large audience, filling the Episcopal church’s magnificent, old space.

For the first half of this winter program titled “From Shadow into Light,” the lights were dimmed, leaving only the glow of altar candles and portable music folder lights. The group’s conductor, Benjamin Olinsky, asked the audience not to applaud until intermission, to allow the music to take them out of their daily concerns. First a small group performed a medieval English carol, “Hail Mary full of grace,” by an anonymous composer. Lit by candles, they sang with disarming simplicity while processing around the church.

The full choir sang the next piece while spread down both of the church’s side aisles, Allegri’s epic setting of the penitential psalm Miserere mei Deus. One was surrounded by the music, and the chanted verses, sung by the men in alternation from the two sides of the church, gave the feel of a monastic liturgical service. A small group, stationed in the choir loft at the back, sang the solo verses to exquisite effect. In those five sections, there was a thrilling rise in the top voice up to a pristine high C, one of the effects apparently added later to the work, which was a strictly guarded secret of the Sistine Chapel choir for a century.

Once the choir went to a more traditional arrangement at the altar, the sound became less affecting. Gesualdo’s responsory Tristis est anima mea did not have the same pleasing balance. Purcell’s Hear My Prayer and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium had the best effect in this position, perhaps because they were more familiar to the singers.

The evening’s marquee work was Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, a legendary motet composed for forty parts, arranged in eight five-voice choirs. Tallis likely took the idea from Alessandro Striggio, who had written a piece for the same forces and brought it with him to London. Theories about the occasion for such a work include that Tallis wrote it for the 40th birthday of Queen Elizabeth I. Scholar Denis Stevens hypothesized that Tallis chose the text as an admonishment to Queen Elizabeth, who was then persecuting the Catholic Church to which Tallis still belonged.

Singing as one member of a section in a large choir is not at all the same as being entirely responsible for a part, especially in such a vast texture. By its nature Tallis’s writing reveals individual singers’ weaknesses, which is what happened here along fault lines of intonation and ensemble balance.

The second half of the evening was more traditional in presentation, with the lights on and choir members making short introductions to the pieces. Another small group sang William Byrd’s “Haec Dies,” giving its dancing rhythms at the words “et laetemur” a buoyant bounce. Salmon Rossi’s “Elohim Hashivenu” was close to the style of Palestrina but with Hebrew words, a similar transparency heard in the “Kyrie” movement from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. Tallis’s Loquebantur variis linguis had a more pungent quality because of the crunchy cross-relations in the harmonic writing.

A set of secular pieces lightened the mood, including heady madrigals by Weelkes and Monteverdi, as well as the light-hearted Matona Mia Cara by Orlando di Lasso. Praetorius’s harmonization of “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” was rather plain, balanced by a lively, varied reading of “Gaudete Christus est natus,” arranged by Brian Kay. A pseudo-pop arrangement of the folk song “Shenandoah” took the group back to its collegiate glee club roots, and the motet Hosanna to the Son of David, again by Weelkes, was a gleeful fanfare to end the program.

Perhaps the most important light cast by this program was that great music does indeed have a future, as long as enthusiastic young people take time out of their lives to perform it for pure pleasure.

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