England’s choral scene is vigorous, with many groups exploring different aspects of the country’s long legacy of choral music. The vocal chamber ensemble ORA (the group is ambivalent about the term “choir”) takes that as a starting point for further creativity rather than simply as a given.
ORA, as the group writes, “was born out of a belief that we are in a second Golden Age of choral music, comparable with that of the Renaissance.” The choir has, accordingly, been active in commissioning new music. “We love the choral music that is being written today and we are passionate about commissioning, recording and performing new works,” it writes. It aims to commission 100 new works by 100 different contemporary composers within the ten years following its appearance in the mid-2010s.
ORA’s founder and artistic director is Suzi Digby, who received the Order of the British Empire honor from Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. With a background in music education, she has pursued the development of immersive, novel concert experiences. ORA, an ensemble of 18 virtuoso voices, draws its membership from other top U.K. choirs.
Unusually, it has announced that their primary focus will be on recordings and on commissioning new music, however, not on concertizing. It plans to release two albums per year, generally pairing classics of English Renaissance repertoire with contemporary works that address them and reflect upon them, both musically and in terms of the larger issues that the Renaissance originals addressed. In 2019, ORA began a residency at the LSO St. Luke’s, the former St. Luke Old Street Church repurposed as a music center by the London Symphony Orchestra. It inaugurated the “Design Series,” a concert series inspired by the center’s Jerwood Hall, as well as by a new effort to reach varied audiences. ORA planned 2021 appearances at the Oxford Festival of the Arts, and the Festival Internationale de Musiques Sacrées, both postponed from 2020.
Thus ORA’s Harmonia Mundi debut, Upheld by Stillness, featured a performance of the Mass in Five Voices by William Byrd, joined to works by Roxanna Panufnik, Owain Park, Charlotte Bray, and Roderick Williams that both take up the musical content of Byrd’s mass and reflect upon its function among people — in Byrd’s case, Catholics — living in a time that was hostile to them. ORA released Many Are the Wonders, combining works by Thomas Tallis with works by six contemporary composers, in 2017. The year 2020 saw a recording of a 40-voice motet by James MacMillan, recorded with Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium. (by James Manheim)
Programs mixing Renaissance music with contemporary compositions are almost obligatory in the genre of the British choral holiday album, so it’s nice to encounter a release that gets back to the roots of the phenomenon and takes seriously the impulses that gave rise to it. The small (23-voice) ORA singers and conductor Suzi Digby, honored here by the dedication of a new composition by John Rutter, apply the method used on the group’s earlier recordings: seeking out, by commission if necessary, new compositions that respond to earlier settings of the same text.
With Christmas music, where long chains of interpretation are already in place, the results are especially resonant. Some of the melodies are familiar. Sample the anonymous medieval carol Nova nova, bracingly brought to life by its juxtaposition with James MacMillan’s setting. A few pieces don’t fit this pattern, and two of these are not British; Fredrik Sixten’s Mary’s Lullaby (Silent Night) and Morton Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium allow the choir to display its considerable skills in full. The grand result is a choral program that holds your attention throughout, and delivers the promised mystery where so many other holiday releases bog down in ritual. Harmonia Mundi’s engineering at London’s St. Augustine’s Church is a major contributor to the sense of focus in this standout holiday release. (by James Manheim)
And I am impressed and thrilled !
01. O magnum mysterium (Byrd) 2.44
02. Venite, Gaudete! (Peacock) 2.23
03. O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel (Williams) 7.09
04. Drop down, ye heavens, from above (Weir) 1.41
05. Videte miraculum (Tallis) 9.56
06. Coventry Carol (Medieval) (Traditional) 2.43
07. Coventry Carol (Allain) 3.52
08. Nova, nova (Trayditional) 1.58
09. Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva (MacMillan) 5.40
10. Suzi’s Carol (Rutter) 5.00
11. As I lay upon a night (Hall) 3.13
12. There is no rose (Medieval) (Traditional) 3.22
13. There is no rose (Rowarth) 4.42
14. Sweet was the song (Hyde) 2.03
15. Now may we singen (Traditional) 4.26
16. Now may we singen (Medieval) (McDowall) 3.29
17, Mary’s Lullaby (Silent Night) (Sixten) 4.01
18. Gaudete (Sametz) 2.16
19. O magnum mysterium (Lauridsen) 6.00