Renaissance Splendour (Debut concert May 13-14, 2011)
by Michael Kellerman of the Austin Chronicle – May 13, 2011
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.
Renaissance Splendour (Debut concert May 13-14, 2011)
by Luke Quinton of the Austin American-Statesman – May 16, 2011
With just eight singers, including artistic director James Morrow — singing bass and conducting from within — Ensemble VIII slid into a niche few knew existed.
It was a little surprising to learn that Austin would launch another choral ensemble with national pedigree, but the group’s first concert eloquently made clear its reasons for being.
On Friday at the beautiful and bright chapel of St. Louis Catholic Church, the voices filled the airy rafters with clear harmony and a pleasing reverberation. With the men looking quite smart all in black, the group formed half a circle near the atrium and cycled through a Ockeghem’s “Salve Regina,” with a tight pocket of harmony.
It was impossible to tell that these voices had scarcely a week of rehearsals to blend.
The rolling cadences of Ockeghem showcased the clarity of these singers. The tone was very even, and the sound felt well balanced as the parts intermingled, though in a later piece a counter tenor felt too dominant in the mix.
Ensemble VIII’s inaugural concert featured the music of Ockeghem, Josquin and Englishman John Sheppard. This is sacred music, but it is also very stylish, very complex music. At times the blend of voices felt sublime; gorgeously in tune and expressive.
For “Stabat Mater” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Ensemble VIII split in half, facing off down the center of the hall, fifteen feet apart. This was a dramatic staging that expanded the stereo effect of the doubled voices.
Unfortunately, most chairs in the chapel were awkwardly positioned for the night’s concert, perpendicular to the chorus. To see the ensemble, you had to twist about 45 degrees, something even yoga instructors would not advise.
The Ensemble distinguishes itself with a capella arrangements that create a focused, minimalist concert. Unlike the Texas Early Music Project it has no period instruments, and unlike Conspirare, Ensemble VIII does not play in the realm of thunderous chorales, or venture past the Baroque era.
Pulling in Renaissance specialist-singers from across the United States, Morrow hopes the smaller group will become a nimble touring ensemble. Its fall season includes dates in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.