A suburban church in leafy East Malvern isn’t a typical venue for a major music event, but St. John’s was very suitable for the famed Tenebrae Choir. Founded in 2001 by artistic director and conductor Nigel Short, Tenebrae was conceived as a vehicle to perform choral music in a theatrical style within religious buildings. This involves movement of the choristers around the performance venue, to enhance the ambience and engage listeners on different levels.
The choir consists of 18 gifted singers, each of them a fine artist in his or her own right. They combined to create vocalisations of the most extraordinary kind, with the entire piece performed a capella. There are five sopranos, four tenors, five basses and four altos (one contralto and three counter-tenors), the section which adds the wonderful ancient tone to the mix. The basses (three baritones and two mighty basses) provide the foundation upon which this all rests.
The first shorter piece, Footsteps by young British composer Owain Park was commissioned by Tenebrae as a companion piece to be performed with Path of Miracles. It is hoped that it will encourage other choirs to take it on in order to attempt something which comes close to the awe-inspiring complexity of Path of Miracles. Indeed Footsteps is a beautiful introduction to the choir itself. It has complementary themes to Path of Miracles, namely travel, solitude and journeying. It has a narrative structure which cycles the seasons through the view of a lonely traveller, who is constantly being moved on without being allowed to settle. The traveller’s only comfort becomes the sky and the stars above. The text is taken from eight different authors, ranging from 12th century Buddhist scholar Vidyakara to Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy. This piece is also complex in its colours as it moves from season to season. The ensemble divides itself to create these effects. There are three-part harmonies weaving among repeated rhythms on a single note. Unresolved chords hang suspended until the harmonies return. The spaces created in the soundscape allow the listener to imagine cloudbursts and winds, snows and sunshine. Time for the traveller to move on is described by a descent to the melancholy of mixed major- minor chords. The overall effect is full of constantly changing imagery with a tonality which suits the church setting perfectly.
There is a pause following Footsteps while the choir repositions itself within the church. The basses and tenors move behind the altar, while the sopranos move to the front of the church by the font, behind the audience. The basses begin a haunting drone which sounds quite like Tibetan throat singing. Their voices rise and blend; building to a frightening climax met by the piercing entry of the sopranos. This is the beginning of British composer Joby Talbot’s choral masterpiece Path of Miracles. The story describes the ancient Christian pilgrimage route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. No matter whether the listener is Christian or has any religious belief, it is impossible to ignore the great works of art created for its sake; one can imagine how the ancient music created for religious ceremonies made the existence of God seem beyond question to those who heard it.
Talbot has used ancient modes and chants to articulate his modern voice in this work. A collection of texts are used as the basis for this composition. The Carmina Burana, Psalms and anonymous writings from the 8thand 13th centuries make a rich background for some of the most complex and beautiful choral music ever written. This choir is renowned for its virtuosity and precision and it is simply breathtaking to witness. The entire audience seemed enthralled from the first and doubtless provided a spiritual experience for many listeners. At times, we forgot where we were, as we travelled with the pilgrims on their journey. The text changed languages as they crossed from one country to the other. The passages in Latin and English were perhaps the most illuminating as the sopranos and altos chanted in cycles as the basses droned underneath. Then joyous multi-layered staccato chants from the tenors and baritones, with legato lines from the sopranos and altos soaring above them. Combined with minimal use of bells and chimes, it created an austere medieval atmosphere and perfect context for the narrative. I was delighted to see the use of the three counter tenors, including as soloists (as was the case for all of these gifted singers).
Originally performed in the aftermath of the 2005 London terrorist bombings, Path of Miracles has found its place as a modern classic. It was commissioned by Tenebrae founder Nigel Short, following the success of Talbot’s The Wishing Tree composed for The King’s Singers of which Short was a member. This is one of a number of links which surround this choir. Both composers in this program have created works for The King’s Singers and now Tenebrae. Short, himself a counter-tenor as well as a conductor brings so much to this event. He leads the singers as if he is singing himself. The joy of the performance is clearly shown on his face throughout the performance. It takes such dedication and persistence to bring out the best in artists each and every time, and that is why the Tenebrae choir has been so awarded for their excellence. It has won Best Choral Performance in the BBC Magazine awards in 2012 and 2016 and been nominated for many others.
If there is ever an opportunity to see and hear this choir, I highly recommend that you take it.
Reviewer Jon Jackson heard Tenebrae Choir as part of the Melbourne Festival on Friday, October 20 2017.
Photo: Chris O’Donovan