The virtuosic Variant 6 likes to mash up centuries, and with a February 15 show at West Philly’s Rotunda, the group was at it again. This increasingly popular a cappella ensemble gave a free concert to a packed crowd of enthusiasts, musicians, and composers.
The six singers took the stage to cheers and launched into a complex, highly curated program of 11 works, 10 alternatively labeled “Verse” and “Response.” This is a traditional sacred-music format, so both the music and the concert framework referred back and forth.
White, Fowler, Gesualdo, and Boyle
There were selections from two settings of Lamentations of Jeremiah, a sacred text set by composers of all eras. The concert opened with Lamentations: Heth by Robert White (1538-1574). Three other sections (Caph, Mem and Jerusalem) appeared later in the program; each of these Latin texts is known by a Hebrew alphabet letter. The ensemble also sang the Ghimel and Daleth sections of Lamentations by Benjamin C.S. Boyle (b. 1979), who was in the audience.
White (a Catholic) was considered by peers to be one of the greatest Tudor composers, though his works — with passionate, bold harmonies and sweeping rhythms — are not so familiar now. This opening White “Verse” was followed by a “Response” — the delicate, longing First Pink, one of the 2016 Jeff Quartets (Paul Fowler, b. 1978) commissioned by the Crossing. After White’s evocation of ruin and destruction, set among the bleak intensity of other offerings, this quiet, hopeful work stood alone in tone and text.
Next, Boyle’s densely redolent Lamentations: Ghimel was paired with Tenebrae Responsories: Tristis est anima mea (My soul is sorrowful) by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). An Italian prince notorious for his violent life, Gesualdo’s rich, unusual-for-the-time chromaticism and dissonance make him sound surprisingly contemporary. It was a striking pairing; if unidentified, it would be difficult to determine which was by Boyle and which by his predecessor of 400 years.
Fall & Decline
Alternation continued, with more works by White, Gesualdo, and Boyle, along with the haunting Dear World by Lansing McCloskey (b. 1964), another of the Jeff Quartets with beautiful solo sections for both the tenor and bass.
The program’s second half was the premiere of Fall and Decline by Gregory W. Brown (b. 1975), commissioned by Variant 6. This is an intricate, driving five-movement work with texts from Eprenius, poets Todd Hearon and Sadakichi Hartmann, Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat, and chapter 48 of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This last tome gave the work its title, inverted by the composer, as his comment on “our current situation, where we have fallen and are beginning to decline.”
The singers held small hand mics as the composer (seated at a computer) distorted or sampled them with jazz-like improvisation. The work opens by hissing the sibilant name of the ancient king Cambyses, and it is filled with microtones and morphing or sliding vocals, along with prerecorded sounds of bells and other noises.
Intricate text, intimate electronics
Brown challenges singers and audience, both of whom warmly embraced the work, but it was often difficult to fathom or to enter it musically. The ensemble’s artistic commitment and joy in the piece made it possible to stay engaged. At its conclusion, singers exited one by one as an electronic tone increased in volume and intensity, creating both aural and physical anxiety. A trenchant comment on futility, the work’s theme is encapsulated in a repeated phrase from Gibbons — “the grave is ever beside the throne.”
All the works, especially Brown’s, had intricate texts. The printed program had copious translations, but colored paper made it impossible to read in the darkened auditorium, and the hoped-for supertitles simply announced the name of each work.
Unusually, these singers used microphones throughout. This was of course mandated for Brown’s intricate electronics, but at first it seemed that it might flatten their natural resonance in this literature. But surprisingly (due to excellent sound mixing), the amplification was actually helpful in this particular room.
Throughout the evening, the ensemble fluctuated in numbers as required, but no matter what the configuration, they sang with impeccable intonation. When ending chords resolved (especially those grounded by an often-dropping bass line), the singers were thrillingly in tune. It was an ambitious and successful evening, emotionally dampening but artistically uplifting.
What, When, Where
Fall and Decline. Gregory W. Brown, Fall and Decline; Robert White, selections from Lamentations of Jeremiah a6 (1560); Benjamin C.S. Boyle, selections from Lamentations of Jeremiah (2012); Carlo Gesualdo, selections from Tenebrae Responsories; Paul Fowler, First Pink; Lansing McCloskey, Dear World. Jessica Beebe and Alissa Ruth Suver, sopranos; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; James Reese and Steven Bradshaw, tenors; and Daniel Schwartz, bass. Variant 6, presented by Bowerbird Concerts. February 15, 2019, at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. variantsix.com.