Duruflé in Denver: Ars Nova and Friends
Review by Betsy Schwarm
Over 32 years, the Boulder-based Ars Nova Singers have built a reputation as one of the finest a cappella choirs anywhere. Their concert October 6 in Denver had all the artistry one expects of the ensemble. This time, however, being ever inventive in his programming, music director Thomas Edward Morgan had invited instrumentalists as well. Together, it made for a program of varied delights.
Ars Nova’s program featured the complete choral works of Maurice Duruflé (1902 – 1986) – and a bit more. Spending over fifty years as organist at the St. Etienne-du-Mont church in Paris, Duruflé wrote more solo organ pieces than choral works, and two of these were included with the vocal selections on the concert. For the first of these, the Chorale Variations on Veni Creator Spiritus, op. 4, Dr. Joyce Shupe Kull presided over the increasingly splendid treatment of the theme. Morgan’s inspired decision to include the women of Ars Nova here, singing verses of the serene ancient hymn between the individual variations, made the gradual evolution that Duruflé gives it all the more vivid.
As programming counterpoint, including female voices there balanced perfectly with the work that followed: Duruflé’s Messe Cum Jubilo. Here, the composer himself specified only men’s voices with organ. The music requires everything from bold statements to plaintive sighs and the gentlemen of Ars Nova managed the changing moods with apparent ease, conductor Morgan balancing organ (again, Dr. Kull) with the voices. The two soloists, tenor Jim Gatch in the second movement Gloria and Brian du Fresne in the fourth movement Benedictus, brought individuality of voice to their spotlights and also melted smoothly into the fuller ensemble. Not all soloists manage that transition comfortably, but conductor Morgan chose well in giving them this assignment.
In introductory remarks, Morgan shared a quotation from Duruflé about unaccompanied singing, that, despite its links to early music, a cappella technique was not to be relegated to a “dusty past.” Indeed, the two a cappella works on the program, Duruflé’s Four Motets, op. 10, and his Notre Père (Lord’s Prayer), op. 14, proved the point. In the care of the Ars Nova voices (men and women alike), the just slightly modernized harmonies and only barely progressive rhythmic treatment served to honor ancient traditions without ignoring the present day. Ars Nova’s long practice of balancing Renaissance music with new commissions has perfectly prepared the ensemble for this repertoire, allowing them to bring out the subtle contrasts to be found in Duruflé’s compositions.
The second half of Ars Nova’s concert began with Brian du Fresne, baritone soloist for the Messe Cum Jubilo, stepping out in another capacity: organist for Duruflé’s Fugue on the Carillon of de Soissons, op. 12. That a man of so many gifts, one who also conducts his own choir, is a member of Ars Nova is evidence of the impressive breadth of talent in Morgan’s chorus.
Grandest of the works on the concert, and the one requiring presence of a chamber orchestra, was Duruflé’s Requiem, op. 9. The work also exists with just organ accompaniment, though Morgan had decided that the orchestral version was that much more impressive. Unfortunately, the instrumental performers were only listed near the end of the printed program, not particularly prominently. Before the concert began, some audience members, having apparently not seen that page, were heard to lament the apparent lack of orchestra, and one must hope that they remained to see the players emerging at the end of intermission.
Frequently, Duruflé gives a few phrases to one section of the choir, then shifts them, slightly changed, to another section. Almost certainly, the composer expected the alteration to be made clear, and this Ars Nova achieved admirably; one found not just difference of pitch, but also difference of intensity. That contrast was also evident in the fifth movement Pie Jesu, in which mezzo-soprano soloist Emma Vawter moved comfortably from the calm floating lines of the first pages to the more dramatic emphasis of the later pages. It is not merely doing service to the music on the page, but also to the text and to the listeners: generally speaking, variety of musical coloring tends to be more satisfying to the ear.
Placing the Requiem last on the program not only ensured that the concert closed with its most ambitious work, but also served as a summation of what this traversal of Duruflé’s music had provided overall. From tenderness to drama, and all points in between: a lesser ensemble might have lost track of the nuances required for that mission. Conductor Morgan, Ars Nova, and their guest instrumentalists provided a superior example of how much can be made of a few dozen singers and a few handfuls of instrumentalists. Combine the right music and the right performers: the audience will almost certainly come away fulfilled.