We are so accustomed to hearing choirs perform in concert that it is easy to forget that much of the choral music now performed in this fashion was never intended for such a format. I think it is safe to say that the majority of extant choral music was prompted by and intended for the services of worship.
Patrick Walders’ polished professional choral ensemble Pro Arte Voices returned a portion of this sacred repertory to its intended function by singing a stellar choral service of Evensong at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Sunday, August 7. From the choir’s opening Anton Bruckner motet “Os justi” sung from the back of the cathedral nave, it was clear that the depth and power of such elevated choral participation transforms sedate, quotidian worship.
Sagely exploiting the composer’s wide dynamic contrasts, Walders unleashed the harmonic drama roiling beneath the motet’s understated Latin Psalm text to breathtaking effect. When the Pro Arte Voices finished the Bruckner, they processed to the chancel in order to sing other portions of the service accompanied by the organ, which speaks from that end of the cathedral. But the choir gave up the unmistakable acoustical advantage of singing from the back of the cathedral.
Charles Ives’ transcendental setting of Psalm 90 with organ and tubular chimes encompasses glorious lyrical flights and turbulent, crashing chordal maelstroms, challenges amply dispatched by the discipline and sonic luxury of the Pro Arte Voices. Happily, those bold dissonances that unsettled Ives’ contemporaries strike 21st-century ears as mere colorful textual interpretation, although I think the cantankerous composer would be disappointed with this change of perception were he still around. Cathedral organist Martin Green gave a vibrant account of the big organ part—Ives was a skilled organist early in his musical career and knew how to write effectively for his instrument.
Contemporary British composer Giles Swayne’s 1982 Magnificat playfully teases the traditional Latin text of this Canticle with rocking, asymmetrical rhythms and clever hockets, and when the composer tires of such antics, he crushes the treble voices together in high-pitched clusters while the low voices turn out spikey ostinatos. This work proved an excellent foil to C. V. Stanford’s stately Victorian Nunc dimittus, Walders’ choice for Evensong’s other required canticle. Hearing the rich, burnished sonority of the men of Pro Arte Voices caress Standford’s voluptuous melodic invention should have doubled or tripled the contributions to the Evensong offering.
For the anthem at the Offering, Walders chose “Indodana,” a subtly compelling choral arrangement by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt of a traditional isiXhosa sacred song. This African paean began with a cloud of meditative, suspended chords that imperceptibly grew in volume and density—aided by gentle drumming—until the whole cathedral reverberated with its fervor. The choir’s performance was nothing short of rapturous.