Handel Choir excels in Baltimore premiere of 'Path of Miracles'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Has the Handel Choir become the cool chorus in town? Sure sounded that way in "Path of Miracles."

For nearly nine centuries, pilgrims have made a 500-mile trek across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the tomb of the apostle James is believed to be.

British composer Joby Talbot found in the story of that pilgrimage the inspiration for "Path of Miracles." This eclectic piece from 2005 for a cappella chorus received its memorable Baltimore premiere Sunday by the Handel Choir of Baltimore under the direction of Arian Khaefi.

Lasting about an hour, Talbot's eventful score effectively conjures up a long, communal journey — physical and spiritual.

The libretto by poet Robert Dickinson draws from sacred texts and incorporates several languages, capturing the emotions and aspirations of the faithful, as well as the less-than-godly behavior of those exploiting pilgrims along what is known as The Way of St. James.

Whether taken at full religious value or as something more symbolic or purely sonic, "Path of Miracles" makes for a riveting experience. The sheer breadth of the technically demanding stylistic devices utilized by Talbot would alone make the piece worth hearing. 

It's not the sort of challenge I would have expected from the Handel Choir of Baltimore years ago. But since Khaefi's arrival in 2013, the repertoire has expanded steadily and imaginatively, and so has the group's abilities.

Listening to the Talbot work unfold at the Baltimore Basilica, I got the distinct impression that this ensemble has become the cool chorus in town.

Khaefi had the singers burrowing into the notes, from the out-of-the-depths rumblings in the first movement on through exquisitely harmonized passages in the third (how radiant Talbot's setting of the word "Jacobsland").

Another striking moment came in the final movement, when women's voices wove hypnotic flurries atop slow-moving, chorale-like intoning by the men.

Throughout, Khaefi paid attention to minute dynamic contrasts and the myriad harmonic subtleties of the score, all the while maintaining a firm pulse.

The chorus achieved considerable clarity of articulation, smoothness of tonal blend and expressive warmth. Solos by soprano Sara Woodward Airth and mezzo Claire Weber registered beautifully, as did percussionist Jack Barry's brief, telling contributions.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore's next big concert, May 7 at Second Presbyterian Church, includes works by Holst, Britten, Argento and contemporary British composer Bob Chilcott. Music of the Italian baroque and a chant of the Inuit people will be included, too.

Like I said — cool.

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