Americana ’18 at St John’s Smith Square – Thanksgiving – ORA Singers/Suzi Digby

“ORA Singers present their own Mass of Thanksgiving, celebrating the best of American and European choral music. Based around the Mass for Five Voices by the ‘Father of English Musick’ William Byrd, the evening includes masterpieces by Tallis, Palestrina and Hildegard of Bingen alongside works by Bernstein, Lauridsen and Whitacre and world premieres by two American rising stars, Julia Adolphe and Paola Prestini.” [St John’s website]

ORA Singers
Suzi Digby

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 22 November, 2018
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Americana '18 at St John’s Smith Square – Thanksgiving – ORA Singers & Suzi DigbyPhotograph: twitter @ORAsingersAmericana ’18 is now approaching the end of its year-long celebration of music from across the pond. Using Thanksgiving Day as a stimulus, the ORA Singers delivered a “Mass of Thanksgiving”, built on a framework that, with notable exceptions, placed works by contemporary English and American composers between movements from William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. There were some neat couplings with settings of identical Eucharistic texts by Thomas Tallis and Steven Stucky and by Palestrina and Paolo Prestini, also recently commissioned works.

There was no doubting the sumptuous tone from ORA’s 18 singers placed within the nave, Suzi Digby standing within a circle of candles, more an anticipation of Advent than a reminder of Thanksgiving, and this tapas-style menu brought only a handful of memorable pieces, while others left little impact. The prevalence for slow pieces gradually sedated the ear (and mind) with a resulting sense of being systematically anaesthetised. Why have so many composers in recent years, especially from America, written so much coma-inducing music with all the character of a shopping mall? Has the Choral Police imposed speeding restrictions for those writing in the realm of sacred music? The post-interval selection was all uniformly slow, and with the arrival of Ola Gjeilo’s ‘Sanctus’ and René Clausen’s sugar-coated ‘Tonight eternity alone’ some will have been in chocolate-box heaven, others left to marvel at the church’s Baroque architecture.

Amongst the standout pieces was the rhythmic urgency of Stucky’s ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ (from Three Motets in Memoriam of Thomas Tallis); its jazzy style all the more engaging for its position between Tallis of the same text and Hildegard of Bingen, her plainsong setting of ‘O Virtus Sapientiae’ prompting a bold reimagining from Dominick Di Orio for three spatially separated sopranos, very effectively conceived and performed with assurance. Equally accomplished was Francis Pott’s ‘Laudate Dominum’ (A reflection on the Gloria from Byrd’s Mass) in which its counterpoint and sprung rhythms stood out from surrounding pieces. My only cavil was the unvarying textures, but its vocal challenges were met with distinction. I also enjoyed John Tavener’s tender ‘Lord’s Prayer’ – which drew rapturous singing and demonstrated how a composer can create the maximum impression from the minimum of means.

Charlotte Bray and Roxanna Panufnik were tucked away in the programme and music from the ubiquitous Nico Muhly and Owain Park held attention, as did Leonard Bernstein’s single voice ‘Lord’s Prayer’, sung by an uncredited and hidden tenor whose disembodied solo sailed atmospherically through the venue. Much less convincing were the accounts of Byrd’s ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’, sung with little recognition of their iconic status or the composer’s astonishing legacy over nearly four hundred years. Much greater sensitivity to phrasing was needed. And we didn’t need the cheesy theatre of candles being snuffed out. Eric Whitacre’s ‘Sleep’ brought this American national holiday to a somnambulant close – so why not something upbeat and celebratory?

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