“You are either a really morbid crowd or very good supporters of friends and family,” Benjamin Olinsky told the audience assembled Friday night to hear the winter concert of the 18th Street Singers, for whom Olinsky serves as artistic director. Titled “In These, Our Darkest Hours,” the program embraced the bleakness of midwinter rather than ignoring it or trying to repel it with cuteness. But, of course, you only realize that any set of hours was the darkest after said darkness has lifted, and the collection of pieces presented Friday reflected that as well.
Francis Poulenc’s “Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel” (“Four Motets for Christmastime”) and “Un Soir de Neige” (“A Night of Snow”) led off the first and second halves of the program and received some of the evening’s most satisfying performances. In the sacred work, the 18th Streeters crisply rendered the text — even though a few lines of Latin were missing from the program, I was able to keep up — while making a lovely sound that easily filled the warm acoustic of First Trinity Lutheran Church. The basses, in particular, sounded like a force of nature here and throughout the concert, a palpable presence deep in the harmonies yet capable of nimbly navigating melodies when called for.
The Gregorian chant inspiration in the first of the four motets came across with appropriate gravity, and when the severity and wonder of the first three motets gave way to joy in the finale, “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Christ is born today”), the chorus’ sound lifted up too. “Un Soir de Neige,” conducted by assistant music director Nick Bath, also showed the singers at the top of their game, vividly limning complex harmonies and giving life to the wandering sufferer depicted in the texts and Poulenc’s settings thereof.
This being an 18th Street Singers concert, classical mingled with other genres, but all the pieces were cannily chosen to reflect the theme of the evening, making for a tight, focused program. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Richte mich, Gott,” doesn’t ever seem fully committed to the laments with which it begins before finding light and hosannas, but the 18th Street Singers made the journey enjoyable all the same. Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei” sounded just distant enough from its source, his Adagio for Strings, to transcend the cliche the latter has become and accumulate great power from its implacable buildup, well-managed by Olinsky. These pieces bracketed warm performances of two traditional hymns, “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” and “We Gather Together,” and the juxtaposition flattered all of the music.
Some flubs made this concert a little less satisfying than last year’s winter edition. The soloist in “We Gather Together” could not be heard; a few entrances came in staggered fashion rather than in unison; and, most significantly, one or two of the sopranos could not comfortably hit the very highest notes they were called upon to sing, resulting in some unfelicitous screeching during the “Agnus Dei” and in a couple other pieces.
In addition, the transition to the skein of nonclassical pieces that ended the program felt awkward, with the finely grained nervousness and exhaustion of “Un Soir de Neige” followed by a labored “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” “Deep River,” though, leaned on those wonderful basses to make a strong impact, and while at the time I was not wholly convinced by the arrangement of U2′s “MLK,” it’s grown more compelling in my memory. The concert closed with “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which was as vigorous as you could want and also provided the perfect closer for the program.
Though this concert had the benefit of texts and translations in the program, Olinsky, assistant directors Bath and Sarah Redmond, and other chorus members took turns talking about the pieces before singing. Even though some of these remarks could have been pared by a sentence or two, they went a long way toward making the concert feel warm and personal, which (along with good singing) is what you want when you duck out of the bitter cold January wind to hear a chorus. The concert repeats tonight; tickets are $10, so if you like the idea of wallowing in darkness for a while before emerging into musical light, it’s worth stopping by.
Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Michael Lodico.