On a recent Sunday evening, the nave of St. John’s Cathedral was illuminated only by enough candlelight for the half dome of the sanctuary to have a soft glow. The pews in the nave were in darkness. There was no doubt that a special musical experience was about to begin.
Eight men and one woman waited silently at the back of the nave for everyone entering to find a seat in the dark room. Everyone in front of them was visible only in black silhouette.
Orison, the men’s a cappella group directed by Jason Overall, director of music at St. John’s, walked in pairs to the front of the church, accompanied by guest alto Harriet Bowden.
The eight men arranged themselves in two rows, facing each other, while Bowden sat down to wait for the final piece on the program.
When the lights of their music stands were switched on, the men’s faces had a radiance that gave the English Renaissance music they sang an internal sense of light.
Brian Austin, Daniel Bentrup, William Brimer, Jon Humber, Michael Jacobus, Gene Price and D. Scot Williams, with Overall both directing the music and adding his voice, all sang in clear, gentle voices that floated to the back of the room.
Some of the music featured a soloist singing lines that had the feel of a medieval Gregorian chant. Sometimes all of the voices sang in unison. Sometimes they broke into harmonies that sent warmth through the room like a fire being suddenly lighted.
The program began with music of an Order of Compline, a special form of night prayers, or Prayers at the End of the Day. Overall, a gifted composer, wrote the arrangements.
A solo voice intoned “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and the perfect end,” to which the other voices replied, “Amen.”
More sung lines were exchanged between the voices in musical settings of Psalm 4, Psalm 31, Psalm 91, Psalm 134 and Jeremiah 14:9: “Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us, and we are called by Thy Name, leave us not, O Lord our God.”
Thomas Tomkins’ setting of verses in English from Psalm 124, “Oh Lord, How Manifold Are Thy Works,” published in 1668, followed.
Music of John Sheppard, written for first and second tenor, baritone and bass with a Latin text, slightly changed the flow of the words being sung. Latin words flow into each other more easily than does English, much of which comes from Latin, mixed with other languages.
Finally, Bowden joined the men for an appealing singing of William Byrd’s “Alma redemptoris mater” (“Sweet Mother of the Redeemer”), written for alto, two tenor lines and bass.
The darkened setting of St. John’s, together with this glorious music, altered one’s sense of time and place. It was easy to imagine hearing this music hundreds of years ago.
It was a special evening of music we could all use more of this Christmas season.
Information on other musical events at St. John’s Cathedral downtown can be found here. Many of St. John’s Cathedral Arts concerts are free of charge.