Britain's choral tradition shines so brightly (with so many dazzling luminaries vying for the spotlight), it's not always easy to stand out. Unless, of course, you cast a brilliant shadow.
In 2001, Nigel Short brought together a choir of professional singers and called it Tenebrae (Latin for darkness, or shadows). Named after an ancient candlelight service, Short's ensemble aims to create "an ethereal mood of contemplation" at its concerts through thoughtful repertoire choices, movement within the performing space and special lighting effects.
Tenebrae has established itself as one of the leading chamber choirs in the U.K., winning the 2012 BBC Music Magazine Choral Award and more recently being added to the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon roster.
If you've not yet discovered Tenebrae, then welcome to the dark side. The choir's newest release, featuring music by Gesualdo and Victoria composed specifically for the Tenebrae office, is available for listening until Apr. 1 on CBC Music.
ALBUM STREAM PLAY BUTTON HERE Listen to Gesualdo and Victoria: Responsories and Lamentations for Holy Saturday by Tenebrae.
As most of Christendom prepares to celebrate Tenebrae services later this week, CBC Music felt inspired to ask Short a few questions about the ceremony and its significance, the music it has inspired and the choir that shares its name.
What will you be doing this Holy Week?
As well as artistic director of Tenebrae, I am also the director of music at St. Bartholomew the Great in London — one of the oldest churches in the city and one of very few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. I'll be in church directing our choir every day. We celebrate Tenebrae on Good Friday evening, and along with all the other services during Holy Week it's one the most dramatic and atmospheric times of the year, and we all find ourselves very emotional by the end of the week!
What is the significance of the Tenebrae service for you?
This is very much a personal thing as it's obviously such a religious matter. I love the symbolism of the lights being extinguished, representing Christ departing this world; the banging of the hymn books on the pews, representing the earthquake following Christ's death; and then the reappearance of the last candle, representing the resurrection.
How did you come to choose the name Tenebrae for your choir?
There's nothing more significant than the candles. The literal meaning of "Tenebrae" is "shadows," and that's visually what you get when we bring along all our candelabra and place them around a church or cathedral.
There's not a musical aspect as well? An aural chiaroscuro, if that's not too much of a stretch?
That probably is a tad too far — nice try though.
Tell us more about the atmosphere Tenebrae creates at a live performance. Why is it important?
I didn't want to simply walk onto a concert platform, sing for 45 minutes, go off for an interval and then do exactly the same for another 45 minutes for the second half. As a boy, the services I remember most vividly are the ones in which the choir would walk around the cathedral and sing by candlelight. They had a magical atmosphere and that's what I like to try and recreate for our concerts. Sometimes before we've even started singing I can tell an audience is aware that there's a special atmosphere, and it really does heighten one's senses, creating an intense focus for performer and audience member alike, making it far more of an "occasion" and an enriching experience.
How did you approach the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo and Victoria that we're streaming this week on CBC Music?
Our motto is "Passion and Precision," and we try to bring these qualities to everything we sing, regardless of the genre. The music of Gesualdo is very much more chromatic than that of Victoria, and so we worked on all the difficult sudden harmonic shifts and then try to forget about them and sing the music focusing very much on the text, which in the Responsories are so vivid and dramatic.
And your singers, what do they add?
They are all professional singers and they bring their combined vocal qualities and musicianship to help colour the music and texts. They know how to sing in tune and how to sing together perfectly: the work we do together is on making the music come off the page and "live" rather than going through the motions of just singing the right notes.
Any plans to bring Tenebrae to Canada?
I hope every time we come to the U.S. that someone, somewhere will take the plunge and invite Tenebrae to Canada but it hasn't happened yet. We're over in North America next April so there's still time.
I have such amazing memories of giving concerts in Canada with the King's Singers — some stunning venues and fab cities. I especially loved Vancouver (wouldn't mind doing some skiing whilst there), Montreal and Toronto. Jacques Villeneuve helped get the choir off the ground 13 years ago and we looked at some beautiful venues in Toronto that would have been perfect for one of our concerts but it just never quite came off. One day.
Tenebrae on CBC Music
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