At last, The Esoterics are back in Tacoma. After a year’s absence due to financial and audience struggles, the a cappella Seattle choir made a triumphant return Saturday night at Christ Episcopal Church with a program they’d sung here before: Chiaroscura. With text and music blending light, darkness, life and death, the program’s three pieces reminded Tacomans once again just why it’s so important to have this choir around: No-one else sings such challenging work with such consummate skill and passion.
Opening with South African-born English composer John Joubert, the choir sang two of his motets. “Sleep canticle,” based on a Sir Thomas Browne poem that flirts with death, began with a solo by director Eric Banks – lovely to hear his mellifluous low tenor in this eerie, Britten-like plainchant – followed by the choir, their full, round sound breaking slightly between notes, which helped in the bath-tub acoustic of the concrete church, before another poignant solo. “Let There Be Light” set St. Augustine’s meditation on God’s light to a dense, more ambiguous harmony, the choir forceful with fortepianos and a build-up to an almost unbearable wall of beautiful sound.
Then came Richard Strauss’ “Deutsche Motette,” composed on a dare to write the most difficult choral piece ever written. The result is a thickly scored, ecstatic hymn to wakeful life, with chromatically über-Romantic harmony. Banks chose a steady tempo with expansive feel, and all the super-difficult writing – the many parts, the sustained high D-flat in sopranos, the strong low B-flat in basses, the un-vocal lines – were sung impeccably by this 18-year, award-winning ensemble. Yet something was missing, a drama and pathos that any conductor can easily achieve with an orchestra playing Strauss (think “Ein Heldenleben”) but which was way too calm here. The climaxes, though, were goosebump-raising, and the ending had a stunning serenity that not even a fainting soprano could disturb.
Finally, Alfred Schnittke. The Russian composer, who managed in 1985 to combine Slavic orthodoxy, Renaissance polyphony and contemporary film score suspense in his “Concerto for Mixed Choir,” drew on a powerful narrative for this 40-minute work. The litany by St. Gregory of Narek pulls the listener back, and back again to the grave, to the realization of our imperfections and the twisted anguish of this world. Moving from tone-painting (the rain of soprano thirds, God’s might as a harshly full choir) to tramping musical flagellation, from Russian verticality to moaning and writhing chromaticism, this piece speaks from the pit of sorrow. It’s a hard sing, and The Esoterics sang it brilliantly, letting the power of the words and music speak for themselves without undue melodrama. Finally, after the intense dissonances by pure sopranos and tenors in the second section and the pounding of gorgeous major chords at the end of the third, the fourth section ran through peaceful healing to the final blossoming and fading, with superb control.
This is a choir that dares to sing music that is difficult and speaks directly of things that truly matter in life – and does it impeccably.
The next Tacoma concert by The Esoterics will be a Gian Carlo Menotti centennial on July 10. 206-935-7779, www.theesoterics.org