Review: Ensemble VIII’s “Lessons and Carols from King’s”
This Christmas concert at St. Louis Catholic Church Chapel Tuesday night started with a deep resonant bass of organ pipes at close range.
Ensemble VIII’s “Lessons and Carols from King’s” takes the charge of its concert title seriously, so after the organ prelude “Improvisations on Puer natus est,” — a dramatic version played by Donald Meineke — and a striking “treble” solo by young Julius Tabery, things began in earnest with a prayer.
This year’s concert by Ensemble VIII is — in the agile group’s typical fashion — reverential and vocally pristine.
Unlike other Christmas offerings around town, which might tread into the secular side of things, Ensemble VIII’s niche is in more sacred quarters. The opening prayer was a “bidding” prayer for “Christmastide,” and it was followed by the Lord’s prayer. The first “Lesson” came from the story of Adam and Eve.
No Santa Claus here, and aside from a dozen lit-up Christmas trees, nary a hint of pagans.
But for those in the audience not interested in a replacement for Christmas mass, the music is uniformly spectacular and uplifting.
The songs were labelled “Carols,” but when conductor James Morrow and his all-star singers get a hold of a carol, well, the populist term of the word hardly applies.
There are melodies here from the 1500s, usually stacked into delicate harmonies. The clean, un-vibratoed voices of sopranos Kirsten Hedegaard and Anne Lenti glide angelically above the rest.
The harmony in “The Lamb,” with text by British poet William Blake, was breathtakingly beautiful. An apt eulogy for the composer John Tavener, who passed away last month.
It’s a nimble concert, as far as they go, starting a little earlier for the weeknight slot, and over and done by 9pm. The “Lessons” are full-on church service, and that might dissuade some of Austin’s more secular crowd, but the tight-knit, gifted vocal group transforms these “Carols” into music that can move anyone.
The second and final concert is Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m.