Last night the Lacuna Arts Chorale, led by its Artistic Director Sven Edward Olbash, began its 2016–2017 season at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Cow Hollow, where the group serves as Artists-in-Residence. The full title of the program was A Voice from Heaven: music of Howells, Stanford, Parry, and Elgar; but the theme was a memorial one, anticipating the attention to those who have died through occasions such as Halloween and the Day of the Dead. The major work on the program was a piece that Herbert Howells called Requiem, which departed from the liturgical text from the Mass for the Dead, just as Johannes Brahms had done when he composed A German Requiem.
Howells composed his Requiem in 1932 for unaccompanied double choir and soloists in each of the four vocal ranges. The “Requiem aeternam” text appears twice (in Latin) in the third and fifth movements. The other movements are sung in English, taking their texts from psalms and antiphons. This piece received little attention until 1935, when Howells reworked it as a large-scale composition, entitled Hymnus Paradisi, for chorus and orchestra after the death of his son Michael in 1935. The a cappella version was not published until 1980, a few years before Howells’ own death.
Lacuna Arts specializes in double choir work, and last night Olbash divided them accordingly. The sanctuary space in which the performance took place consisted primarily of exposed wood. This created relatively dry acoustic conditions through which one could readily appreciate the many intricate elements of Howells’ polyphonic writing, as well as the spatial interplay of the two choirs. With the exception of several of the verses from Psalm 23 set for soprano (Winnie Nieh), the use of solo voices was extremely spare, primarily serving to highlight particular phrases from the text. Nevertheless, Howells seemed to be going for a particularly transcendent rhetoric in his solo soprano lines; and Nieh definitely rose (without trying to avoid the pun) to the occasion. Olbash’s overall interpretation gave the music the sense of a highly personal meditation, a rhetorical stance that was well served by the intimacy of the acoustic setting.
The first half of the program was devoted to selections from collections of two of Howells’ predecessors, Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry. It began with the first and last of the three motets that Stanford published as his Opus 38, the SATB “Justorum animae” (the souls of the just) and the SSATBB “Beati quorum via” (blessed are the undefiled), the first from the Book of Wisdom and the second from Psalm 119. These were brief texts (two verses in the first, one in the second) sung in Latin; and the second was sung by the reduced Lacuna Arts Ensemble (two sopranos, two mezzos, two altos, two tenors, and three basses). This smaller group also sang the first four of Parry’s six Songs of Farewell with texts by Henry Vaughan (SATB), John Davies (SATB), Thomas Campion (SSATB), and John Gibson Lockhart (SSATBB). Here, again, intimacy was the prevailing rhetorical stance, particularly in the musical interpretations of the poems set by Parry, which transcended the underling text structures for a sake of a better account of the spirit of each of the verbal offerings.
The program concluded with one of Edward Elgar’s last choral compositions, “They are at rest.” This is an SATB setting of a poem by John Henry Newman. In brought a sense of quiet closure to the program, rather in the spirit of how the “In paradisum” text brings closure to the Latin Requiem Mass setting. While the lines of the poem are uneven, Elgar endowed his setting with a serene sense of calm that encouraged those of us in the audience to “go in peace.”
All of this made for a thoroughly memorable choral experience. Those who missed it deserve to know that it will be given a second performance tomorrow (Sunday, October 30), beginning at 4 p.m. The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin is located in Cow Hollow at 2325 Union Street, on the southwest corner of Steiner Street.