Stella: Renaissance Gems and their Reflections

ORA Singers / Suzi Digby

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Stella: Renaissance Gems and their Reflections Review

by James Manheim

It's obvious even to casual listeners that contemporary a cappella choral music, an English specialty, is influenced by Renaissance polyphony, but what exactly is the nature of this influence? What is happening when modern composers take up Renaissance models? ORA Singers, a small, virtuoso choir, has done a great service with its Renaissance Gems and Their Reflections series, which aims to unpack the phenomenon a bit. This is the third volume in the series. Relying mostly on newly commissioned works, ORA director Suzi Digby pairs them with Renaissance models, all of which here are by Tomás Luis de Victoria. Here, the nature of the modeling seems simple; each modern work shares a text with a Victoria motet. Yet each one makes something different of Renaissance music, and this adds a great deal of interest to the program. The modern works begin with works mostly hewing to Renaissance-style polyphonic textures, but they depart from that as the album proceeds. Consider the stark chords of Francisco Coll's Stella (a take on the Ave Maris Stella text), or the vocal ornamentation of Cecilia McDowall's Alma Redemptoris, or Julian Wachner's harmonically denser Regina caeli II. ORA is a crack ensemble vocally, and McDowall's ornaments do not faze them in the least. The energy level remains high throughout as these demanding pieces are framed with pieces of plainchant. The album can be recommended as a starting point for those interested in ORA's series or simply to anyone who has ever sung contemporary a cappella choral music and wondered exactly what was going on.

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