Despite the current contention of the political climate, it has nothing on the religio-political minefield of heresy and treason that was England in the 16th century. And yet, from politics ruled by violence emerged a glorious vocal legacy.
Spire Chamber Ensemble explored this legacy in the program “The House of Tudors: Music of the Monarchs,” presented on Saturday at Visitation Church. Performed a cappella and conducted by artistic director Ben Spalding, the music extolled the glory of Christ in English and Latin, with voices of purity and resonance filling the vaulted arches. Spire is a unique choral group in the Kansas City region in that the singers are nationally active performers, brought together for each concert series.
The first portion was a set of pieces from two 16th century contemporaries (who weathered both Catholic and Protestant rule): Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The ensemble’s full, blended quality was introduced with Tallis’ Ordinal — Come Holy Ghost, followed by the complex layers of Byrd’s “Laudibus in Sanctis,” with lively, soaring lines given a percussive rhythm with the consonant entrances. The men served as cantor, unconducted, in Tallis’ “Jesu Salvator Saeculi, Verbum Patris,” with the ensemble responding in ringing tones, concluding with Byrd’s short, vibrant “Sing Joyfully.”
A selection from their contemporary John Sheppard exhibited the sort of effortless beauty that is extremely difficult to achieve, the ensemble as seamless as one well-honed instrument, Spalding releasing phrases with regard to the space’s acoustics. They changed configuration for 15th century John Browne’s contemplative “O Maria Salvatoris Mater,” with a row of solo voices in front, the wonderful blend and spiraling melisma initiated by soprano and alto.
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Concluding the first half was another set from Tallis and Byrd, with a touch of choreography as they all moved to the center of the dais during Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” back to center for the Tallis’ pensive “Miserere Nostri” and then the bell-like annunciations and joyful alleluias of Byrd’s “Haec Dies.”
Moving then to the 19th and 20th centuries brought Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor. While adhering to tradition, Vaughan Williams added modern harmonic color and rhythmic manipulation in a resplendent work, cadences jubilant and defiant, concluding in perfect accord to Visitation’s tolling bells.
The last section was a selection of shorter, modern works from Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, James MacMillian and Bob Chilcott, centered on Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin.” Here, four singers removed themselves somewhat off stage to the rear of the dais to serve as antiphonal commentary, responding in Latin like an otherworldly echo.
They finished on a gentle piece by Chilcott, “Tallis Canon,” the lines softly swelling, rippling between the voices. At the conclusion, the attentive audience stood to applaud, welcoming a brief encore to this well-thought out and beautifully presented program.