Oxford choir brings history, rich sound to Ascension

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

There are very few existing organizations in the world, civic or cultural, that have remained unchanged for 640 years. The Choir of New College Oxford, which performed this week at The Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Northshore Drive, is one of the most beloved.

As it has been for more than six centuries, the choir is composed of all men and boys. The 15 boys, ages 9-12, are classified as “trebles” and sing mostly soprano parts. The 13 men are divided into altos, normally referred to as countertenors, tenors and basses.

The choir sings for chapel services when at home in England, as well as at momentous events. When on tour, the choir travels with its own staff of tutors. Knoxville was the second concert on their current American tour. Under the leadership of director Robert Quinny, they also travel with two organists.

There is nothing quite like the depth and rich vocal sound of an all-male choir that sings the full range of the vocal parts. Listening to them sing on Tuesday night was an extraordinary experience.

Choral music in medieval England, as elsewhere in Europe, was a mixed bag, from passing around harps and boisterous singing in pubs, to setting religious lyrics to popular song tunes to assist in spreading the gospel. Liturgical music moved from plainchant early on, to Gregorian chant in the middle period, to polyphonic music in the 1300s when New College came into existence.

Remnants of that music could be heard in the choir’s singing of the Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s 16th-century motet “Sicut cervus – Sitivit anima mea” (“As the deer desires the fountains, My soul thirsts”). The beauty of the voices, without any of the vibrato that seems to always come with women’s voices, illuminated music with the clarity of fresh water.

The choir began the concert with William Walton’s 1972 Latin setting of Psalm 100. With the group singing from the organ loft at the back of Ascension’s sanctuary, behind the crowd assembled to hear them, the sound of the music in Ascension’s bright acoustics seemed to fill the air with a luminous glow.

Sixteenth-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Latin “Ave maris stella” (“Hail, Sea Star”), one of the early ecclesiastical titles for Mary, sung before an organ solo, was contrasted with Matthew Martin’s 20th-century version of the same text, sung immediately after the organist Charles Maxtone-Smith’s playing of Flor Peeters’ contemporary “Toccata, Fugue et Hymne sur ‘Ave Maris Stella,’” Op. 28.

The organ music was often thick and tangled with surprising harmonies weaving in and out of the middle voices.

There was more Renaissance music written by Gregorio Allegri, John Sheppard and Thomas Tallis, along with 20th-century music by Herbert Howells, Paul Drayton and C.H.H. Parry.

But the singing that captured everyone’s heart was an encore performance of the early 19th-century American song “Oh Shenandoah.” I have rarely heard it sung more beautifully, with the mixing of the boys’ high soprano tones with the rich depth of the men’s voices.

More information about concerts sponsored by Friends of Music and the Arts at The Episcopal Church of the Ascension can be found here.

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