On April 1 at 7 pm, the Bridge Ensemble, Baltimore’s newest early/modern choral group, will perform at the inaugural Light City Festival, occurring in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Area. The Bridge Ensemble joins a wonderfully diverse lineup of musical acts, the “classical” side of things including Convergence Maximus – another must-see occurring under the auspices of the War Memorial Arts Initiative and featuring the Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society – as well as Symphony No. 1. I had the opportunity to listen in on Bridge’s dress rehearsal, and I heartily recommend you hear their sumptuous program.
The Bridge Ensemble is directed by Gilbert Spencer, a Baltimore native (his parents are both prominent musicians in the area) and graduate of Northwestern University – though before his college years, he sang in the renowned male treble choirs of St. Thomas, New York and the American Boychoir. The tonal clarity of the Anglican choral tradition infuses the Bridge Ensemble’s sound, which, aptly, bridges older works (specifically those from the Medieval and Renaissance Eras) to contemporary compositions.
The hour-long a cappella program (no easy feat – especially as it is to be performed in the dark with only illumination on music stands) includes a wealth of early-versus-modern pairings centered around the theme of Light. Opening with Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeouis’ O Gladsome Light, based on the c. 4th century Greek hymn Phos hilaron, one immediately warms to the group’s balanced tone and responsive, unified interaction with its conductor: it is clear that the homophonic style of this work gels with Spencer’s Anglican choral training. Following this are two contemporary works, O Oriens by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy and Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis’ Lucis creator optima. Dunphy’s motet unfolds with a chant-like opening, creating
an organic link between the modern and ancient, and expanding into lush diatonic clusters and triads. Shimmering seconds in the upper register frequently give way to strong harmonic pillars and a few change-of-mode surprises. In a similar harmonic vain, Miškinis’ work offers unique gestural content to bookend his composition, with invigorating, upward rushing gestures setting off a high-versus-low antiphony, revealing homophonic chords pitted against taught, tenor pedal points. Miškinis’ setting was followed by a Tomás Luis de Victoria work based on the same text, sung with a fluidity that once again showed off Spencer’s Anglican training – this is no stodgy Latin motet, but a living, breathing work with relevance.
For me, the jewel in this program is undoubtedly a new composition by a member of Bridge’s bass section, Michael Rickelton‘s setting of Rage Against the Dying of the Light, based on Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I may be biased, but Rickelton’s approach to text-setting reveals a composer who is astutely aware of poetic content, musical form, and vocal timbre. The work opens with terse statements of “rage,”
followed by men’s voices settling lower while the treble lines provide licks of flame that reveal the scope of the work’s musical canvas. Rich harmonic and timbral progressions demonstrate Rickelton’s sensitivity to text, voice, and the interaction thereof–particularly poignant are his settings of “gentle,” alternatingly weeping and nostalgic, clinging and pleading. Echoes of the “rage”-ing opening occur throughout the work, hinting at far-reaching structural elements that weave throughout the piece, a trait which calls to mind music of Michael Hersch and the fraught organicism that undergirds his musical forms. (Rickelton and I both studied with Hersch, and I find one of the long-reaching effects of such study to be a focus on the form and ritual of a composition.)
One of the most impressive aspects in Rickelton’s work is his fusion of personal style and idiom. Though the diatonic clusters that are now almost a given in contemporary choral compositions are certainly present, they feel integrated into the work; likewise, triadic pillars are no mere artifacts, but are part of a spectrum within the complex harmonic palette. The organic, utterly non-formulaic structure of the work ultimately returns to the opening material before gently fading – hoping? dying? transcending? – into the choirboy tones of a soprano duet, weaving between thirds and seconds that ring clearly and truly.
The remainder of the program includes Anglican touchstones by Byrd and Tallis (Christe qui es lux et dies and O nata lux), a motet by Guilluame du Fay, Ebb Tide by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, Joby Talbot’s Wishing Tree (Talbot’s Path of Miracles was recently performed by the Handel Choir of Baltimore – their soloists Sara Woodward and Claire Galloway Weber are members of Bridge), and a setting of Star in the East (Brightest and Best) from Southern Harmony, redolent of Anonymous 4’s treatment of 19th-century American. In all, a choral festival to light up the night, and your aural imagination – don’t miss it.