Sacred music from the Phoenix Chorale,
heard by MARIA NOCKIN
On 1 March, the Phoenix Chorale, formerly known as the Phoenix Bach Choir, whose recording, Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary, was the winner of the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance, gave a matinee concert at the American Lutheran Church of Sun City, Arizona. Since Sun City is a community restricted to older adults, the afternoon time slot was a popular alternative. This program of religious music was performed in several Episcopal and Lutheran churches in the greater Phoenix area. Although Charles Bruffy is the artistic director and regular conductor of the group, this performance was led by its executive director and assistant conductor, Joel Rinsema.
Choral conductors tend to use gestures that are very different from those used by orchestral and opera conductors. Maestro Rinsema got his wishes across to his twenty-six singers by means of artistic hand movements that seemed to sculpt the air rather than merely beat time. Choral conductors who work with a cappella groups have specialized motions that their singers know how to follow. Members of this Chorale have degrees in music; often in vocal performance, and many of them either lead their own choirs or teach music in the Phoenix area. All of them are highly skilled vocalists and their talent is well used in this prize-winning ensemble.
The 1 March concert consisted of:
Three Motets in Honor of Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin Mary
by Healey Willan (1880-1968)
Two Marian Pieces: Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella
by Javier Busto (born 1949)
The Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei from Mass for Double Choir
by René Clausen (born 1953) (world première)
Messe pour Double Choeur
by Frank Martin (1890-1974)
Although Healey Willan was born in England, he immigrated to Canada shortly before World War I. He taught at the conservatory in Toronto and made that city his home for the rest of his life. The Motets in Honor of Our Lady are some of his better-known pieces. Their texts are taken from an eighth century office which associates the Mother of Jesus with roses, lilies and the rejuvenation of the earth in spring. The Phoenix Chorale opened their program with beautifully defined and accurately intertwined choral harmonies that praised the Mother of God with exquisite tone.
Javier Busto is from Spain's Basque Country where he studied medicine instead of music. He was destined to be a composer and conductor, however, and he has founded no less than three award-winning choirs in his native country. His hymns follow ancient church traditions and were sung here in an appropriately lean and pungent rendition.
Contemporary American composer René Clausen is the conductor of the Concordia College Choir located in Moorhead, Minnesota. Charles Bruffy's Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales commissioned him to write The Mass for Double Choir and this series of concerts produced the première performances of the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei. Clausen wrote in a neo-romantic style. The Phoenix ensemble's interpretation was full of beautifully balanced harmonies and luxurious textures conveyed on waves of luminous tone.
The Phoenix Chorale. Photo © Jen Rogers
The second half of the program was devoted to the unaccompanied Mass for Double Choir by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Written in 1922, it was composed before Martin began experimenting with twelve-tone techniques. Here, he manages to combine the polyphonic style of early Church music with the post-impressionism of the nineteen twenties. The rendition of his lyrical Mass on this warm afternoon bathed the listeners in the subtle beauty of its long melodic lines that became part of a rich and lasting artistic experience.
Copyright © 29 March 2009
SPOTLESS ROSE: HYMNS TO THE VIRGIN MARY