“Please silence all electronic devices and refrain from talking. This evening’s program will be presented without intermission or breaks for applause. It is our hope that this structure will assist in providing a meaningful experience...” If I were to say, in 2013, that I had an unusual concert experience, you might assume the performance took place somewhere edgy or casual (a trend defined by (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York), featuring musicians in street clothes playing amplified household objects or something similarly avant-garde. Instead, I heard a dozen formally clad singers perform Renaissance masterpieces and several conservative contemporary works, in the setting of a Catholic church to boot, but the experience was highly unusual and effective nonetheless.

Experiments in the programming and presentation of classical music often give the impression of being different “on purpose”, of trying too hard to break the mold. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the solemnity imposed on Saturday evening’s performance by the Orpheus Chamber Singers – a seriousness designed to enhance the spiritual significance of the event on the eve of the Christian Holy Week – fostered a meditative listening environment not always achieved by more gimmick-driven presentations.

Beyond the trancelike continuity of the performance (there was no applause over its roughly 75-minute duration), a couple of thoughtful and subtle programming devices heightened the effect of the music. First, and less unusually perhaps, was the alternation of older and newer works. None of the contemporary works on the program (the most recent of which dates from 2011) were particularly jarring – no more so than Gesualdo’s grindingly dissonant suspensions in the Tenebrae Responsories of 1611 – but there was a wonderful moment when the program returned to a couple of works of Palestrina after a contemporary set; the purity and straightforwardness of his style was refreshing after the faux-antiquity in two of the more recent works by Hugo Distler and James MacMillan.

The second, more creative touch was the placement of singers in the church. Offstage or otherwise unconventional positioning of musicians has been employed to novel effect since at least the time of Beethoven and Berlioz, but this evening the intent and effect went beyond novelty. Beginning with Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis, the middle section of the program was performed from the rear of the church, with singers joining percussionist Drew Lang and organist Scott Dettra in the gallery. In a church with pews that made it difficult to comfortably face backwards, the result was that the audience mostly faced forward, staring silently ahead or with eyes closed, contemplating the music as it emanated from behind and above them. To achieve such a focused setting through such unpretentious means should be the envy of artistic directors everywhere.

The Orpheus Chamber Singers were at their best in the contemporary works, particularly those of the Estonian Pärt. De Profundis, written in 1980, was the most atmospheric and powerful work on the program. Pärt employs percussion (gong, bells, and bass drum) and organ to hypnotic effect. The slightly off-balance alternation of percussion instruments created a ritualistic feel behind the entirely syllabic text setting, akin to Gregorian chant imbued with a heartbeat. Trivium (1976), for solo organ, displayed the same chant-like melody and hypnotic patterns in its accompaniment as De Profundis. The piece is in three distinct sections: the first two are analogous to the structure of a responsorial hymn, in which a solo chant is sung and the congregation or choir repeats it; and the concluding section projected different thematic material using a reed stop on the instrument, to eerie effect. The other contemporary composer of note on the program (excluding the less interesting pieces by MacMillan and Distler) was the young Welshman Paul Mealor. His Vos omnes was a true call to action, featuring searingly bright major harmonies penetrating the (intentionally) muddled texture, and passionate cries of “attendite” (“take heed”). In a moment of cross-cultural, postmodern inspiration, the piece ends with a solo female voice singing the Hebrew prayer “Hine mah tov”, but this very strangely went without mention in the program note or printed text provided for the work.

Equally beautiful, though revealing the occasional vocal flaw, were pieces by Renaissance composers Tomás Luis de Victoria, Carlo Gesualdo, Orlando di Lasso, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The two works by Palestrina – Super flumina Babylonis and Sicut cervus / Sitivit anima mea – featured a lush, melismatic treatment of the text that lingered on and explored each phrase. The ensemble was generally well rehearsed and, aside from a few hesitant entrances, created a beautifully matched timbre. For all of Wagner’s chromatic harmony we’re hearing this year, there’s nothing quite so gratifying as a cadence on a cleanly executed open fifth.

***11