In its controlled spontaneity, the Annapolis Chorale's "Music and Poetry - The Sacred" at St. Anne's Episcopal Church on Saturday was more an exhilarating happening than a traditional religious concert.
"The whole idea behind these concerts - 'The Profane' on Friday and 'The Sacred' on Saturday - was to look at the way the simplest elements of music and text are combined in complex pieces to reveal how music melds with words in chants and hymns," explained music director J. Ernest Green.
A weekend of looming war motivated Green to make program changes by substituting Vaughan Williams' comforting "O how amiable," Mozart's "Laudate Domino" and Vivaldi's "Laudamus te from 'Gloria'" for originally announced works.
Audience regulars at St. Anne's were accustomed to Green's impromptu program changes, but they could hardly have anticipated his other surprises that would praise God through cultures and eras. Green also fully utilized the physical space in what he calls "the acoustically honest St. Anne's Church."
Green began the concert in the organ loft with a male chorus singing Maurice Durufle's "Messe 'Cum Jubilo'" to Larry Molinaro's organ accompaniment, where the antiphonal dialogue between organ and choir chant transformed this 20th-century composer's music into a timeless work recalling the sonorous chanting of Catholic or Buddhist monks of earlier millennia.
This universality of religious expression was followed by an exotic bossa nova and Afro-Cuban rhythm emanating from the organ in contemporary composer Johann Matthias Michel's "Organ, Timbrel and Dance," a three-part selection. In this work, Molinaro brought a worldly contemporary rhythmic sound to colonial St. Anne's Church.
From contemporary rhythmic hymns, Green moved to a prayerful solo of Mozart's "Laudate Domino," featuring soprano Carolene Winter. He ended the program's first half with the full chorus singing 20th-century composer Herbert Howells' elegant "Like as the hart."
Having conducted opera in Brazil in the mid-1980s, Green has a special affinity for the highly colored, idiosyncratic music of 20th-century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, describing his "Ave Maria" as a "hot, passionate version unlike any other." The music was precisely as described in its modern heartfelt adoration of the Virgin Mary.
This was followed by the chorale's stirring rendition of 19th-century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner's "Three Motets," supplemented by four trombonists whose voice-like instruments melded into the human voices so we could hardly detect where the trombones stopped and voices started.
Throughout the evening, I was struck by the Annapolis Chorale's richness and purity of sound emanating from the sheer joy of singing. Soloists Carolene Winter and Laurie Hays came from the ranks of the chorus, their lovely clear soprano voices blending beautifully in Vivaldi's "Laudamus te."
For me, the highest point came in A. Lotti's "Crucifixus." Here, the four trombonists moved to the back of the altar behind the bass singers while sopranos, altos, tenors and baritones fanned out, edging the side walls of the church. The audience was at the nucleus of an incomparable live surround-sound surpassing any electronic reproduction I've heard.
Often described as today's hottest composer, Los Angeles-based Morten Lauridsen was represented by one of his most revered works, "O nata lux" from "Lux Aeterna" to bring the program full circle before closing with the comforting sound of Vaughan Williams "O how amiable" - an appropriate ending of inspired music-making.
In addition to its program of choral concerts, the Annapolis Chorale, in celebration of its 30th season, co-sponsors with St. Anne's a three-concert series by the Washington Symphonic Brass. The final concert in this series, featuring 17 musicians from the National and Baltimore symphony orchestras, will be at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Anne's. For more information and to order tickets, call the Annapolis Chorale box office at 410-263-1906.