At Luther Memorial church Friday evening, lovers of choral music were given a treasurable lesson in sublime ensemble singing by the visiting choir of Clare College, Cambridge.
The stereotype of an English church choir is of an all-male ensemble, with boys taking the soprano and even alto parts. On that point alone, the Clare College choir stands apart. For the past 32 years it has accepted adult female singers in place of boys. It has also moved beyond its official college functions into a wide range of concert and recorded performing, bringing the group to some extent into the character of an independent concert choir, with a complement of 29 singers.
Now, there are quite a number of vocal consorts and chamber choirs active these days, their repertoires founded on early music, mainly of the 16th century, both sacred and secular. Yet, almost in fear of becoming typecast, they have sought to plunge themselves also into contemporary choral literature, a lot of their own commissioning. The result is often programs of grindingly mismatched material and a lot of time wasted, frankly, on ephemeral junk.
Under its soon-to-retire director, Tim Brown, the Clare choir has developed a more moderate and better-integrated policy as to its repertoire. In the program at Luther Memorial, the menu was framed, at beginning and end, by the opening and closing movements of the "Mass in G minor" by Ralph Vaughan Williams -- as testimony to the modern durability of the English choral tradition. Pieces in Latin or English, by Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, constituted the opening bloc of material.
At the further end chronologically, the most recent work was a tart and perky but idiomatically choral setting of the Anglican Magnificat by Paul Drayton (b.1944), demonstrating the more how that English Renaissance tradition has, despite some disruptions, survived and evolved as a living idiom.
If there was a star composer in the program, it was the English choral master Herbert Howells (1892-1983), who was represented by three selections. One was his powerful elegy for the assassinated President Kennedy, "Take him, earth, for cherishing." Another was his expansive setting of the Anglican Nunc Dimittis canticle. His setting of the English text "Like as the hart" was paired with Palestrina's setting of its Latin original, "Sicut cervus," for a most interesting contrast of styles.
There were other pieces beyond the English literature. Fauré's lovely setting of a devotional text by Racine was paired with Verdi's treatment of an Italian version of the Lord's Prayer, from the set of Sacred Pieces created in the composer's last years. And a really beautiful German "Evening Song" by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) contrasted with a brooding reflection in Finnish by Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928). All of these selections, mutually complementary rather than jarringly incongruent, made up a handsomely rounded package. There was also an organ piece by Marcel Dupré. And, for no evident reason, there was an interpolated movement from one of Bach's sonatas for unaccompanied violin. As an encore, one of the lovely folksong arrangements by Vaughan Williams, "The Turtledove," was a touching farewell.
Matching the generosity of the program was the astonishing quality of the group's choral singing: flawless technique and refined ensemble. Fully comfortable in a church ambience, it made use of Luther Memorial's spacious acoustics to ringing effect. You will not often hear choral singing of such polished confidence.
In snaring Brown and his choir in this latest of their many American tours, Luther Memorial and its music director, Bruce Bengston, have given Madison a superlative treat.