The Singers - Minnesota Choral Artists opened its seventh season Saturday night at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis with "My Soul's Repose," a pairing of the Fauré Requiem with Stravinsky's Mass. This was a leap for the organization, which usually performs contemporary a cappella works.
The Fauré, one of the most beloved settings of the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy and one of the most gentle, was the big draw on the program. It replaces the fear of death with what Fauré called "a happy deliverance."
From the opening Introit, ably assisted by organist Christopher Stroh, the Singers performed stylishly and with their customary warm, resonant sound. The tenors, in particular, had the chance to shine, nobly singing the opening of the Agnus Dei and ethereally duetting with the sopranos in the Sanctus.
The soloists were drawn from the ensemble. Brian L. Steele's light, lyric baritone was ideally suited to the elegant music. Soprano Hannah Armstrong soared prayerfully through the "Pie Jesu."
The chamber orchestra that accompanied was not an asset. They created a murky aural haze that the voices had to work hard to penetrate. With his Mass, Stravinsky, though Russian Orthodox, wanted to create a setting of the Roman Catholic liturgy that could become a worship staple. It never achieved that kind of popularity, in part because of its astringent music.
The performance got off to a bad start. The squally sounds of the University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble competed with the pure sound of the voices.
Artistic director Matthew Culloton's love of the music was unmistakable, and he conducted with great passion. From the florid writing in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei to the austerity of the Credo (based on Russian Orthodox chant), his thoughtful reading made the challenging music most accessible.
An extra treat was the concert-opening "Totus Tuus" ("Yours Completely"), an a cappella hymn to Mary by Henry Gorecki, written to honor Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland in 1987.
It is a minimalist work, but harmonically rich, and the Singers sang with great clarity and conviction. Dramatically presented with the voices out of sight behind the high altar, the ethereal performance touched the heart.