Richard Childress' new ensemble deserves distinguished future

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Review of His Majesty's Men, led by Richard Childress

His Majesty’s Men is a six-member vocal ensemble that has given only its second public performance, and judging from the results at St. John Cantius Church Saturday night, the group deserves a distinguished future.

That will not surprise longtime listeners who remember Richard Childress, the countertenor from who founded His Majestie’s Clerkes, an acclaimed chamber choir in Chicago during the 1980s. The new venture, made up of male singers from Chicago, Great Britain, New York and Washington, is again under Childress’ direction and once more shows fine artistic mettle.

Saturday’s program brought together early vocal music with contemporary creations in a historic venue that last year was voted online “America’s Most Beautiful Church.” Thereby did the evening satisfy ear and eye at a supremely high level.

The group’s purity of tone, elegance of blend and subtlety of color could not be bettered. Moreover, nothing extraneous threw them off, not even the momentary intrusion of steeple bells or a prolonged unexplained electronic whistle. No matter the repertory — the concert began in the High Renaissance and ended with a British rock group from the 1970s — music-making went beyond technical command to appropriately varying degrees of expressive ardor.

When a program includes geniuses such as Josquin des Prez and William Byrd, you do not expect the show to be stolen by comparative unknowns. Yet that is what happened, owing to Bernardino de Ribera, William Blitheman and Alonso Lobo. Early Spanish music long has been of particular interest to Childress. This was indicated by deeply affecting accounts of Lobo’s “Versa est in luctum,” a funeral motet for King Philip II, and the first North American performance of Ribera’s “Dimitte me ergo.” In between, Blitheman, also obscure but from England, contributed a serenely glowing “In pace.”

The concert’s second half, not as revelatory, was largely devoted to music by living composers. The notable exception was John Tavener (1944-2013), whose “Village Wedding,” an evocation of rustic Greek nuptials, was a standout that nonetheless suffered somewhat from overly cultured performance. The group’s impeccably smooth delivery elevated works by Philip Moore and Bob Chilcott beyond a doubt, yet it also made one wish for music more prickly and of greater challenge. Nevertheless, John David’s “You are the New Day” (arranged by Peter Knight) sent listeners home with honeyed tones sweet enough to be partially encored.

Alan Artner is a freelance critic.

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