Unlike the other 18th Street Singers concerts I’ve heard, there was zero pop music in this year’s winter program (which I caught on Friday; it was repeated on Saturday). Instead, artistic director Benjamin Olinksy and the chorus presented a program entitled “Beauty in the Cathedral” (although they sang in their usual winter-concert spot, First Trinity Lutheran Church). The program juxtaposed ancient polyphony by the likes of Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria with modern works influenced by the old styles from composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Maurice Duruflé, and Herbert Howells.
The music played well to the 18th Streeters’ strengths: With Olinsky conducting, their sound blossoms warmly even in dissonances or tight contrapuntal spaces (although the sopranos sometimes became screechy at the top of their range on Friday, with the altos occasionally disappearing). Just as important as their sound, they make sure you can hear the words they are singing, so you can actually follow the effects the composers used to illuminate the texts.
As if to prove the point, a couple of pairs of settings presented the thoughts of ancients versus moderns, with versions of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina and Francis Poulenc providing an especially piquant contrast: smooth Renaissance homophony and rhythmic oddities and dissonances, the same words filtered through different musical notions of joy and exaltation.
The Singers did an especially good thing in presenting Howells’ Requiem, a work underheard in concert. Howells juxtaposes impassioned settings of brief fragments of the requiem text with settings of answering psalms that begin as monody but blossom into more. The whole thing is not a note longer than it needs to be and more powerful for it, as Howells perfectly integrates his Tudor influences into a personal style and structure. Olinsky led a performance that met Howells’ passion with equal fervor from the singers.
Howells’ Requiem was the only large-scale work on the program; otherwise, shorter works in which rhythm typically took a back seat to harmony dominated. Individually, they expressed the theme of “sanctuary” that Olinsky outlined in remarks during the concert; collectively, they sometimes felt like a series of applications of balm to already well-moisturized skin, especially in the nice warm acoustic of First Trinity. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing-day,” a Christmas carol a little late, got the pulse up before intermission. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” should have done the same to end the concert, but the choir didn’t bring out rhythmic vigor of the motet’s fugal section.
Still, this concert was an achievement for Olinsky and the 18th Street Singers, who continue to present concerts largely composed of semi-obscure music that becomes fresh and vital in their performances. Plus, they filled a church with people to hear it! As the strains of “Shenandoah,” an obligatory song for this group, echoed in an encore, you could feel the community in the room – the music had become a personal offering from the singers to the audience. In this sense too, the group created a space of sanctuary on Friday night.