Soothing Music in Troubled Times from Ars Nova
Review by Marc Shulgold
Thomas Morgan put it succinctly in his program notes for a recent concert by Ars Nova Singers. “Everything feels fragile right now,” the chamber choir’s artistic director wrote. And so it does. Appropriately, the group’s evening of uplifting music was titled “Made Fragile,” offered before a sizable and appreciative audience gathered in Denver’s Central Presbyterian Church on Friday, April 1.
The venerable church is in the midst of a major remodel – no surprise for a building dating back 130 years. Introducing Fauré’s glorious Requiem, the concert’s major work, Morgan pointed out to his listeners that Central Pres (as it’s known) was a contemporary of that timeless sacred work of 1890. Fragility aside, the unfolding performance resonated with confidence and reassuring strength in the conductor’s hands, as he led the Singers and a terrific chamber orchestra, led by violist Matthew Dane, in music that has never failed to soothe through more than a century.
The work’s two attention-grabbing opening unison notes signaled the start of an emotional journey through grief and relief, from a plea for eternal rest to a welcome-home in the next world from the angels. Considering the current unsettled state of the present world, Ars Nova’s gentle message of peace rang out with clarity and hope, thanks to the group’s impeccable singing, Morgan’s sensitive conducting and the marvelous acoustics of the church’s spacious nave.
Supported lovingly by the string section, the Offertorium soared, lifted by a fine Hostias et preces by the talented CU-based baritone O’Neil Jones, who returned later in the Libera me. Following a heavenly (pun intended) Sanctus, enhanced by harpist Kathryn Harms and violinist Michael Brook’s gorgeous solos, the popular, eagerly awaited Pie Jesu was given to Magdalena Kadula, a senior at Tara Performing Arts High School in Boulder. She was selected from 13 area students through an audition process. Possessing a sweet, well-trained light soprano, Kadula shows great promise as her voice and confidence continue to grow.
Throughout the remainder of the Fauré, Morgan and company reminded listeners of the work’s unending beauty and its undying tenderness. A perfect repertory choice for these unsettled times. Praise also to organist (and respected Ars Nova bass) Brian du Fresne, seated way in the back.
Immediately preceding the beloved Requiem was the equally adored Pavane, featuring the flute of Christina Jennings. The super-familiar orchestral version was here enhanced by the original choral setting, sung in French. Considering the gentle flow of the music, it’s quite a jolt to follow along with the text, which depicts an enthusiastic bit of boy-girl flirtations between Lindor, Myrtil and their pals: “They love one another! They hate one another! They curse their loves!” Ah, l’amour …
Earlier, Assistant Conductor Brian Dukeshier led Ars Nova in a rarely heard song by Brahms, Abendständchen (Evening Serenade) that proved captivating in its all-too-brief two minutes. More Brahms, please! Prior to that, Dane and Jennings joined in four recent works by the Los Angeles-based Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. TaReKiTa, uses a text consisting of scat-like syllables inspired by the striking of the tablas, the Indian drums. It was delivered with joyful lustiness, while the spiritual mysteries of When the Violin (to a poem by Hafiz) and She Will Transform You (Neelanjana Banerjee) showed Esmail’s considerable gifts for blending intriguing harmonies with evocative melodies and thick (sometimes too thick) counterpoint. In Violin, Ars Nova’s first sopranos hit all of their challenging high notes effortlessly. The short flute-viola duet Nadiya with Dane and Jennings that followed, revealed the composer’s embrace of her Indian roots with sumptuous sensuality.