General 11-22-2003

Music Review: The Rose Ensemble, Fire of the Soul

The Rose Ensemble gave this concert at the Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth on Friday, Nov. 21. They will reprise the program on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis at 8PM (Cathedral Choir at 7:15). $10 suggested donation.

Friday night in Duluth was bustling with activity: a holiday parade, several choices of drama, music, cinema, athletics. Even so, more than 150 people chose the chilly ambience of the Sacred Heart Music Center on the Central Hillside to listen to a dozen people sing music from sixteenth-century Poland. And for those present, the Rose Ensemble unfolded “Fire of the Soul,” a program that opened one musical blossom after another, each one startlingly fresh and vocally brilliant. For this, the responsive audience applauded and stood, whistled and whooped—all for 500-year-old music sung in Russian, Spanish, and Latin!

Director Jordan Sramek, a Duluth native, created a six-part program to celebrate the group’s musical diversity, as well as the release of their newest recording. “Fire of the Soul” contains sacred music by Polish master Mikolaj Zielenski (ca. 1550), Russian Orthodox composer Vasily Titov (ca. 1700), and a newly commissioned “Hymn to the Virgin Mary” by Minnesota composer Sergey Khvoshchinsky ( b. 1957).

Every inch of Sacred Heart’s tall gothic arches resonated with all twelve voices singing a grand hymn of praise by Titov. As those fairly traditional seventeenth-century sounds faded away, the Rose Ensemble shared four selections demonstrating the oddly sonorous harmonies of Zielenski. While his style contains some of the elements of high church music of the sixteenth century, his low bass and high soprano stretch the limits considerably. The men sang a text appropriate for the feast of All Saints in which Mark Dietrich’s final low note vibrated the floor tiles around the room.

The centerpiece of the evening was an extended setting of Mary’s familiar song of joy, a “Magnificat.” All twelve vocalists had their own musical line to sing in this energetic, arching gem of Renaissance writing. The (seemingly) effortless way that soprano Kathy Lee soars toward the high ceiling balances the darkness of the male singers far below. The Rose Ensemble continues to reach new levels of clear, well-phrased mastery of these little-known yet deeply enriching anthems. A Zielenski prayer to open a vesper service served as an encore.

A Slavic nativity hymn, an Italian Marian lament, and several Spanish legends offered some rare treats. Countertenor Eric Betthauser glowingly told of a miraculous healing caused by a heartfelt prayer to the Holy Virgin Mary. Ginna Watson bowed her vielle and strummed her harp to these Spanish tunes, including one brief, plaintive solo. Sramek strapped on his sinfonia and cranked it gently under the singing. Most of the audience was clearly transported to distant times and places.

The newly composed anthem by Khvoshchinsky was sublime. Though written specifically for this concert series, it combined well several centuries of Orthodox text and harmony. The exceedingly wide range of these vocalists was combined into one grand performance. Just when it seemed to be ending, the Ensemble surged ahead for an even quieter, higher, and lower finale. This is glorious new music, fit for all the echoing cathedrals of every generation.

The Rose Ensemble only comes to Duluth occasionally, but the audience appreciation is amazingly enthusiastic. Music from the distant past clearly speaks to current listeners, and the increasingly convincing performances of the Rose Ensemble are guaranteed to enrich all who attend.