Chamber Choir excelled with vulnerable contemporary works at the highest vocal level

Orpheus behind the Wire
Thomas Michelsen, Politiken
Tirsdag, 24. november Læs artiklen på

Chamber Choir excelled with vulnerable contemporary works at the highest vocal level

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ARS NOVA COPENHAGEN Conductor: Paul Hillier.Garnisons Church, Copenhagen. Sunday, November 22nd 2015. Will be performed again at Stavnsholt and Søllerød Churches January 9th and 10th.

Ars Nova Copenhagen sang about murder, internment, and loving and losing.

Where most of us have a hard time singing in tune when celebrating uncle Ben’s 75th birthday with a party song in unison, chamber choir Ars Nova Copenhagen exhibits vocal technique at a quite different level.

Apparently no choral movements are too advanced for the twelve singers, six of each sex, who on Sunday afternoon stood in a semi-circle with a relaxed focus and presented an unusually condensed and well planned concert.

They performed an hour’s worth of choral music with no interruptions, the focal point being a cycle of choral songs called ‘Orpheus behind the Wire’, written by the German in exile Hans Werner Henze. Five intensely expressive a cappella movements written to poems by British poet Edward Bond. He is also known for writing libretti for Henze’s operas ‘We Come to the River’ and ‘The English Cat’, of which the former must be worthy of an entry in The Guinness Book of Records, requiring no less than 111 roles distributed to 50 singers.

Bond’s lyrics relocates the greek myth of Orpheus the mastersinger to the 20th century and its concentration camps, police states, and executions of political opponents and Jews. The result is a kind of seismographic poetry of vulnerability which Henze has set to music as if it were modern madrigals. That is to say refined secular word-painting vocal compositions like we know them from the Renaissance.

Henze’s excellent opera ‘Boulevard Solitude’ recently played to half-empty halls in the Opera House, which was a pity. His Orpheus song cycle, which has previously been sung by DR’s choirs, too, is one of many works by Henze inspired by Orpheus. The expressive content of the words are painted in complex harmonic juxtapositions and, guided by Paul Hillier’s direction, the singers delivered the freezing, fragmented story and its many melismas with clarity and tenderness.

A chillingly effortless game

Hillier had chosen to put four other directly or indirectly related choral pieces in between the five movements and had them work as intermezzis.

William Byrd’s ‘Come, Woeful Orpheus’ became the flowing and refined madrigal counterpart from the Renaissance, which in its lyrics even include the keyword wire, recalling the title of Henze’s cycle. And after this presentation of the singers’ competence in performing early music the word was given to two German composers who have worked with the luxurious poetry of Rilke. In ‘Rilke Madrigals’ from 2006, Bernd Franke, a contemporary whose music is rarely, if at all, heard in this country, lets a solo quartet stand out from a vocal canvas painted with words whispered, spoken, and shouted. The sensuality and, towards the end, the rhythmical waves of the music became a great experience. Even when measured against the ‘Six Chansons’ by Hindemith, Franke’s deceased countryman, which gave us Rilke’s words in French and in a simpler euphony dating from 1939. The year when Europe burst into flames.

Ars Nova is a Danish chamber choir at a high international level. This impression was reinforced even further with the two ‘Border Ballads’ by Vagn Holmboe titled ‘Dirge’ and ‘The Wee Wee Man’, two pieces which may be known to the more experienced listeners in a Danish audience. Although they have a different mythological starting point they share some similarities with the myth of Orpheus. Based on folk mythology from the borderland between England and Scotland, the themes of hell and supernatural beings were presented by the singers with a superior textual clarity, making some of the rather difficult Danish choral music sound like a chillingly effortless game.

The highly focused concerts by Ars Nova Copenhagen, like the one they delivered in Garnisons Church on a cool Sunday afternoon, are a far cry from the average Danish communal singalong. To be sure, both are delightful things, and thankfully singing can be enjoyed at every level. On Sunday the singers of Ars Nova elevated and expanded our universe during an hour of sublime perfection.