There are few things more beautiful or more powerful than the unfettered human voice. Spire Chamber Ensemble made abundant use of these qualities in its all a cappella presentation, “Ave Maria: Chants and Songs in Honor of Mary.”
Conducted by founder and artistic director Ben Spalding, the 20-member ensemble is compiled of exquisite voices from around the country. Saturday night’s concert was fittingly set at Visitation Catholic Church and utilized the space’s acoustic capabilities in a careful, delectable use of its resonance.
The concert was a mix of plainchant, Renaissance polyphony and 20th-century songs that, if not based directly on chant, at least strongly adhered to that aesthetic scope. Plainchant opened the concert and served as a connecting feature, the pieces clearly grouped in the well-structured program. Because of these groupings and explicit instructions to hold applause until the end of each section, the concert moved swiftly and the works were experienced in relation to each other, maintaining an emotional through line.
They also used a variety of staging options for the works: processing in on the opening chant, bringing the men in for a tighter grouping in their chant portions, or setting soloists behind the pews. They opened the second half up in the balcony, so that animated “alleluias” traveled back and forth over the audience.
It was clear that the singers relished the repertoire, like in the lively extended melisma of William Cornysh’s “Ave Maria, Mater Dei.” There were contemplative choices, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo,” Anton Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” or Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat,” that also offered moments of fortissimo grandeur.
Others were more dramatic, or mystical, like Margaret Rizza’s setting of Hildegard of Bingen “Ave Generosa” (featuring soloists Elizabeth Hungerford and Luthien Brackett), while some were pure rejoicing, like when the opening line of Josquin Des Prez’ “Gaude Virgo Mater Christi” rang out like a fanfare or the exultant pairing of Orlando de Lassus with Gabriel Jackson’s “To Morning.”
The program also include the world premiere of Spalding’s “Ave Maria Stella,” a well suited piece that set up interesting, surprising dissonances and emphasized the soaring sopranos.
The high voices flourished, but it was the low voices that grounded the ensemble with a pipe organ-like richness. The ensemble’s control was impressive, with barely audible drones and impeccable releases.
They ended with Franz Biebl’s exquisite “Ave Maria,” surrounding the audience in candlelight, the layered melody ascending with the flickering flames.