New Choir, Quire, Offer Joyous Debut

In olden days, a choir was known as a quire. The spelling may be considered obsolete now, but not the concept, as the newest professional ensemble in town appears happy to proclaim. 

The debut concert of Quire Cleveland on Wednesday at St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland ends a drought of two decades. Not since the Robert Page Cleveland Singers closed shop has the city possessed a professional chorus. As led by Peter Bennett, a British-born faculty member at Case Western Reserve University, Quire Cleveland has set out to explore unaccompanied works mostly from the late medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. 

Bennett and his 18 singers introduced themselves with a bounty of sacred English music from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The program’s title, “Sing Joyfully,” was reflected in sophisticated, alert artistry. Quire Cleveland’s superb voices hail from such local choral ensembles as Apollo’s Singers and the Case Early Music Singers.

Experiencing the chorus for the first time in St. John’s reverberant acoustics left some of the group’s qualities to the sonic imagination. Words weren’t always clear — not a matter of enunciation, but of the vast space.

Bennett’s attention to phrasing, balance and harmonic implication allowed works by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Weelkes and Orlando Gibbons to achieve their lofty impact. Most of this music speaks of deep reflection, and the repertoire might have been more varied in mood and pace to provide greater contrast.

Still, the program was ample evidence of Quire Cleveland’s potential to secure a firm place in our musical life. A series of Tallis pieces unfolded as rich tapestries, their lines seamlessly joined and interwoven. The dissonances that color the texts at several points were emphasized to telling effect.

A keen sense of shading and shape pervaded everything the chorus touched. Among the luminous pieces was Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” whose hushed utterances floated on purest streams of sound.

The three Gibbons selections that ended the evening gave the ensemble an opportunity to enter diverse musical worlds. The English words weren’t always discernible (again, the acoustics), but the spirit behind them fairly leaped as the choristers sang their songs of praise.

Bennett was a subtle guide throughout the program, conveying the music’s messages through gestures that nurtured the expressive moment. The singing had unpressured beauty, as well as urgency. Getting to know Quire Cleveland better should be a rewarding adventure.

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