(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
We often come at early music concerts from an alien distance, but it was much easier to absorb the influences (and the innovations) of Monteverdi’s choral masterwork "1610 Vespers" — Music for the Blessed Virgin.
Ensemble VIII, Central Texas’ resident sacred music specialists, sang the Vespers straight through Friday night, with a concert at the St. Louis Catholic Church on Burnet Rd. The ensemble, led by the hand of James Morrow, continues to be technically brilliant, and the Monteverdi gave them some room to show off.
The concert opening doesn’t hint at the virtuosity to come though — it sets the table, but a little too slowly. Then a glance at the program tells us it’s not Monteverdi, but a toccata by Frescobaldi, inserted as an opener. When we move to the Monteverdi, his pastiche emerged. There’s a low drone — a slice of Gregorian chant. The singers soar with solemn Early Music vibrato-less tones.
Then there’s brilliant polyphony. The multiple, intertwining voices are electrifying. But Monteverdi’s piece broke ground because it’s also playing with the budding art form of opera, and the composer’s spotlight often shines on two or three singers who start in unison, before bursting apart into a heart-pulling chord that weaved in and out of the space.
The space itself had also been altered for the better this season — the chairs are turned forward now, a little easier on the neck.
More hints of opera come later, with a duet between stunning sopranos. All of the sopranos Abigail Haynes-Lennox, Gitanjali Mathur, Brenna Wells and Shari Wilson, sang with astonishing, beautiful tones, and Monteverdi gave them parts that would have been quite at home in an opera. They were surprisingly evocative for a church setting. Almost sexual, but not-quite.
When the music reverted to more traditional prayer interludes, my attention waned a bit, only to be turned again by the next entree, like a beguiling incantation that sounded more Islamic than Italian.
The most moving moments come in the darker passages that reach into a minor key, towards something sublime enough to entice goosebumps.
This was a fuller Ensemble VIII; They were actually 14 instead. including a band of instrumentalists, plus Morrow himself, directing his singers passionately, calling for more sound from one section, more vigor from another.
As always, this collection of singers excels. Sopranos Haynes-Lennox and Wells stood out especially for these perfect, angelic tones, but the entire company was effective, often forming perfectly tuned chords.
It was a nice showing for Morrow’s ensemble. Something to remind us that the better practitioners of Early Music can make music four hundred years old, sound as fresh and groundbreaking as intended.