Ars Nova and the Sphere Ensemble came together this weekend for a collaboration in honor of the centennial of composer Benjamin Britten's birth. Known in America mostly for his operas and choral music, it was refreshing to hear this diverse program, and to share the joy of a successful collaboration between these two groups.
Ars Nova Singers has made a name for itself over nearly three decades, and specializes in a cappella music of the Renaissance and of the 20th and 21st centuries. The young Sphere Ensemble prides itself on bringing the conductor-less approach to string music and explores a huge variety of repertoire for strings. Here, the two groups joined successfully to celebrate Britten, as well as Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The two composers have a good deal in common, each having a significant output of choral and sacred repertoire, inspired by the chant and Renaissance traditions of church music. Yet each has a distinctive stylistic voice, which created a wonderful contrast in this program.
The centerpiece of Ars Nova's offerings was Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia. Composed in 1942, around the same time as Britten's famous A Ceremony of Carols, the Hymn to St. Cecilia reflects Britten's interest in Renaissance style and devices, yet this a cappella piece is full of more complex 20th-century harmonies, intricate rhythmic patterns, and is a perfect example of his utterly unique musical voice. Paired with richly layered poetry by W.H. Auden, this ode to the patron saint of music is not easy to pull off, and there were some moments of tentative tuning and diffuse diction. Yet the choir captured the joyous effect of the second movement, "I cannot grow," wonderfully, as the skipping, jaunty lines expressed the innocent delight of music itself. The basses were effectively full of gravitas as they reiterated their descending lines at the beginning of the third movement, "O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall," and Amanda Lucarini revealed a delicious plummy sound in her brief solo. Two anthems followed, Chorale after an Old French Carol (1944) and Advance Democracy (1944), a raging ode to democratic ideals, which conductor Thomas Edward Morgan dedicated to the current American government. The choir seemed more assured in these pieces and the homophonic motion of the Chorale led naturally to clearer diction and a more luminous, unified sound.
Sphere Ensemble followed with Britten's delightfully charming Simple Symphony (1934), and acquitted themselves admirably in this clever and appealing piece. The ensemble acts as one large chamber group, and there was never a moment of miscommunication or disjointed playing. The second movement, "Playful Pizzicato," was especially nuanced, and the players produced a stunning depth of sound in the third, "Sentimental Sarabande." They began the second half of the program with Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), a meditative take on a single motif played at exponentially slower speeds between the instruments. The piece has an epic quality, and the addition of a chime (played by Morgan, doing double duty) created a vivid yet peaceful atmosphere.
The two groups then joined together for Pärt's Salve Regina (2001/2011) in a premiere of the orchestrated version of this anthem. The choir sounded truly at home in this repertoire, and, accompanied by the pulsing, brief interludes of the strings and celeste, built to a huge climax on "nobis post hoc exsilium ostende." With a brief coda of celeste and violin harmonics, the piece closes with a stunningly delicate effect, and was the highlight of the program. Three diverse pieces served as an encore of sorts, including Kailin Yong's arrangement of "Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir," Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting's "Hallelujah," and the Beatles' "In My Life." Mention was made of the devastation caused by the recent flooding and these pieces made for a rollicking, uplifting close to the concert. Britten's legacy as a true original continues to grow; this concert offered just a taste of his early development into one of the 20th century's masters, and the Pärt works made for a complementary contrast. Successful collaborations like this are delightful to see and hear.