Britten & Beyond: Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble
A Review by Robin McNeil
The Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble opened their new concert season Friday evening, October 11, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 16th Avenue and Grant in Denver. Maestro Tom Morgan entitled this opening concert Britten & Beyond, because the program featured the music of Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and the music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1934). In addition, Sphere Ensemble performed Britten’s Simple Symphony, Opus 4, and they also joined with the Ars Nova Singers on the second half of the program when both organizations performed the music of Arvo Pärt.
Ars Nova Singers opened the program with Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which was written in 1942. The 1940s were an especially difficult time for Benjamin Britten because he was an acknowledged pacifist whose ideals led to an uneasy relationship with the British public during the times of war. As a matter of fact, Britten, and his partner Peter Pears, left England and spent some of the war years in the United States and in Canada. The Hymn to St. Cecilia was largely composed in the United States. The text consists of three poems by W. H. Auden, each of which is followed by a four line invocation to St. Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. This is not a hymn in the traditional sense, but becomes a three movement structure similar to a miniature cantata. This is an important work for Britten because it is a connection from Britten’s early accomplishment as an incredibly talented composer to that of a remarkably sophisticated composer, and one who would set his mark on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also interesting to realize, as the programs notes explained, that the work was completed in the United States, and that upon Britten’s return to England in 1942, the US customs office confiscated the first part of this composition because they thought that it was some kind of coded message. Britten had to rewrite the entire first section from memory.
The Ars Nova Singers sounded absolutely magnificent when they performed this composition. This work is full of parallel triads in the first section and a quite rapid scherzo in the second. It has been a long time since I have heard this work, but this performance made the third section recognizable as written in a cantus firmus style. The choir was so well-balanced in this performance, and the Ars Nova Singers has always surprised me at their first performance of every season with their clear definition of pitch and harmony that is never muddled and always secure. It is as if the sun comes up when they open their mouths to sing. Louis Warshawsky and Amanda Lucarini were absolutely remarkable as the soloists in this work, and their breath control on the longest notes imaginable was quite remarkable. Amanda Lucarini is a graduate student in voice performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, so one would expect her to be superb, and trust me, she is. Louis Warshawsky is a computer engineer, but has been the tenor section leader in the Ars Nova Singers for thirteen years. One wonders why he didn’t make vocal performance his career. Both of these individuals are excellent, and they are a perfect example of this entire choir: some have made music there career path, i.e., they have degrees in music. But some have not. Nonetheless, the Ars Nova Singers is one of the best choral groups in the country, because they are all musicians, because they love what they do, and they just happen to have one of the best choral conductors in the country. Since they are located in Colorado, to put it simply, they are ours. And that should make us all very happy.
Next on the program, the Ars Nova Singers performed the Chorale after and Old French Carol. Britten had intended to write a Christmas oratorio with a text written by W. H. Auden, but he completed only two movements. As a matter of fact, it lay forgotten and unperformed until 1961 when Imogene Holst conducted it. This, too, was beautifully performed and the text by Auden is quite moving. The remarkable blend of the Ars Nova Singers provided the audience with much to listen to, and left me with the feeling of admiration that such a choir with so many backgrounds could produce such artistic results. The Ars Nova Singers also performed Benjamin Britten’s work, Advance Democracy. As Maestro Morgan pointed out, this particular work, and its text by Randall Swingler, though written as the rumblings for World War II began to increase in the 1930s, seems to fit quite well with the political situations in which we are presently embroiled. It was a rousing call to patriotism. The harmonies in this work must have been quite a surprise in the 30s, and his skill in writing for a choir is readily apparent. It did not seem as though it would be an easy piece to perform, but Thomas Morgan has the ability to bring the choir’s attention to all of the necessary details: the entrances were perfect, the dynamics were extreme, and the emotional range was quite great.
I was truly curious about the Sphere Ensemble that performed on the remainder of Friday evening’s concert, because it is not terribly often that the Ars Nova Singers combines forces with other ensembles. They are often joined onstage by individuals but it is a little unusual to hear them perform with the chamber orchestra.
After hearing Sphere Ensemble perform Benjamin Britten’s famous Simple Symphony, the reason for Thomas Morgan’s invitation to them became apparent.
Sphere Ensemble is a group of musicians (and, here, I will quote from their website):
“The Sphere Ensemble is Colorado’s exciting new chamber ensemble, freeing itself from the confines of the baton and presenting the power and richness of the string orchestra paired with the intimacy of a string quartet. Sphere was formed in 2011 by professional string players who wanted to explore new directions in string ensemble playing. The members of Sphere bring a wealth of musical experiences into the group, all having classically-based college or conservatory training but possessing a diverse background of musical loves and tastes. Sphere musicians have appeared with groups and musicians ranging from the Colorado Symphony and Boulder Philharmonic, to Moby and Kanye West, and nearly every style in between. They have performed in Denver, Boulder, and Broomfield, and have been featured on Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Spotlight show with Charley Samson, and KGNU’s Classic Monday.”
Sphere Ensemble amazed me. In all truth, when I heard their performance of Britten’s Simple Symphony I was surprised. Here is a chamber orchestra of thirteen string players that is new. They play without a conductor, and they are absolutely stunning. They have been together a very short time, and yet they seem to have played for many years without a conductor. I have never been so spellbound by a new group for several years. Their sound is truly amazing, so much so, that they seem to have chosen each other because their instruments all produce the same warm tone. The balance is remarkable. Their musicianship is remarkable. Their accuracy as an ensemble makes one believe that they have played together for many years. They play with such enthusiasm and love for their art – and it is art – that the audience never made a sound because they were completely awestruck. The Britten work was full of powerful emotions, whether it was vivacity, as in the first and second movements; lyrical warmth filled with beautiful tone, as in the third movement; or exuberance, as in the fourth movement.
The performance of this work was so good, that I kept trying to place them in a category of performances that I have heard in my seventy years as a musician. Though it may sound extravagant in the extreme, I am very serious, when I say that Friday evening, Sphere Ensemble exhibited all of the traits of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields. I know that many of you readers will scoff at that observation, and I suppose there is the possibility that, at this performance, all the stars fell into proper alignment. But I will bet all the stars in the universe that Sphere Ensemble can reproduce their performance again and again. The audience gave them a spontaneous and instantaneous standing ovation.
I have written before that there are seven or so groups in the state of Colorado that are easily classified as the best that the United States has to offer. They are the Colorado Ballet, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Chamber Players, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, the Colorado Bach Ensemble, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Ars Nova Singers, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, and now, we must add Sphere Ensemble. Notice that I did not enumerate this list. I truly believe it would be erroneous to say that one of these groups should be at the top or at the bottom. It is simply enough to say that these organizations are first rate: they always surprise, and they never disappoint.
After the intermission, Sphere Ensemble performed Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. This is a work scored for string orchestra and bell. It seems almost ironic that a bell is asked for in this composition which depends upon Pärt’s exploration of what he called tintinnabulation. Simply put, as a result of Pärt’s own dissatisfaction with his previous compositional style, he begins to develop the tonal center as an “omnipresent resonance” rather than as a point of departure and return. He removed the goal directedness of functional harmony and began to explore the sheer sonority of sound. In Cantus, there is a descending a minor scale that occurs in various rhythmic values and different instrumental groups with varying tempi. This creates a wonderful shimmering and diaphanous sound that was magnificently re-created by Sphere Ensemble. The element of darkness was added by Maestro Thomas Morgan performing on the bell which tolled grimly. It was as moving as it was beautiful.
After Pärt’s Cantus, Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble performed Pärt’s Salve Regina. This was the United States premiere of the composer’s new version of this work we scored for chorus, string orchestra, and cellist. Brian du Fresne performed on the celeste. The performance of this piece was absolutely otherworldly. The program notes state that the meter signature is 3/4, but at times it seemed like 6/8, so that it took on the sway of a cantilena. It was captivating, and riveted everyone’s attention.
There followed three short works, all of them announced from the stage. All three took on the appearance of encores, and included the tune by the Beatles, “You Are in My Life.”
The Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble presented a program that was marvelous to hear, and which allowed the audience to wallow in many different sounds that were at once mellow, jovial, and serious. These two organizations complemented each other through their excellence, attention to detail, joy of performance, and truly exceptional musicianship. As I stated above, I have never heard Sphere Ensemble perform, and therefore, I did not know what to expect. I was, quite literally, stunned.
The Sphere Ensemble in partnership with the Ars Nova Singers created an absolutely magical performance. And, as I have said before, there is absolutely no need to drive a thousand miles to hear a performance of this quality.