Review: Carols for Quire III at Trinity Cathedral

Quire Cleveland presented “Carols for Quire III,” its third annual pair of Christmas concerts, on December 22 and 23 in the grand and resonant surroundings of Trinity Cathedral. Directed by Ross Duffin, Quire aptly utilized straight tone vocal production to weave an elegant tapestry of the purest of a cappella sounds as they performed choral works spanning the 13th through the 21th century with stylistic authenticity, attention to detail and an eye to audience appeal.

Quire opened the first section of this feast of music with several anonymous 13th - 15th century works which immediately set the stage for the evening’s fare. The opening works, Orientis partibus (Song of the Ass), and Angelus ad virginem were followed by works of Pygott, Palestrina, and Byrd. All were set in polyphonic style and open fifth cadential endings were predominant.

Duffin, an expert on the performance and practice of early music, joined the Case Western Reserve University music department in 1978 “to direct the nationally recognized historical performance program there.” In his exceptionally explicit program notes (three portrait size pages, single spaced) Duffin pinpointed the important historical details of each work with scholarly expertise. Several of the works were arranged by “RD” as well.

From my position in the front row off to stage left, I was could not only hear the performance but was able to observe the performance “up close and personal.” As Quire ventured through many centuries of choral style in almost chronological order, one was able to clearly experience historical changes in harmonies, textures and performances practices, wonderfully accomplished with such logic!

Duffin utilized the vocal capabilities of Quire by assigning solos, duets, quartets, etc in a multitude of differing arrangements. This added to the overall enjoyment of the performance and showcased the strong vocal talents of each individual singer.

Duffin’s arrangement of Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (What is this agreeable fragrance?) was wonderfully simple, homophonic in nature while moving smoothly between beautifully caressed phrases and a harmonization that was both stunning and pleasant to the ear.

Handl’s Canite tuba in Sion (Blow ye the trumpet in Zion) scored for altos, tenors and basses brought forth a strikingly dark sound and a blend and balance that was lush with integrity and solemnity.

Of course, what Christmas performance would be complete without Gustav Holst’s mellifluous and profoundly moving In the bleak midwinter? Here the singers departed ever so slightly from their straight tone and I seemed to hear a gentle, faint and soothing vibrato sneak into the moment. Wonderful!

Jennifer Conner’s Quiet Promise was the winning composition in Quire’s 2011 composition competition for members of the Cleveland Composers Guild. It was a beautiful and impassioned setting of her own poetry. (Conner is on the CIM composition faculty and is Head of the Suzuki music theory program).

There were many curtain calls. Duffin returned to conduct Quire in a very clever encore arrangement of We [Wish] you a Merry Christmas written by one of Duffin’s old friends [Philip Neuman], who obviously had a delightfully twisted sense of humor as The Star Spangled Banner somehow made its way into the musical line. Great fun and a lot of laughter and joy!

Audiences are often lured into attending choral performances that proclaim to be authentic in style, historically significant, and fastidiously accurate to the period from which the music emanates. And unfortunately, audiences are often disappointed by the lack of the most important factor, the quality of the performance. Not so with Quire. With the exception of one soprano voice that protruded throughout the evening, these superb professional singers demonstrated to all in attendance that their authenticity, accuracy, attention to detail and performance quality were remarkable and their skills prodigious. Quire’s every phrase conveyed an acute sensibility and understanding of the importance of a blended, balanced and pure choral sound.