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The Lords of the National Gallery

Suspicious Cheese LordsOne part of the strange success of a certain local, all-male, a cappella choir must have been due to its strange name, the Suspicious Cheese Lords, derived from the Latin incipit of a motet by Thomas Tallis. The other part is what they do, singing their specialty, Renaissance music, with the all-male consort of voices for which it was most likely intended, and sounding pretty good. Their determination not to sing only what other groups sing, seeking out new repertoire, unpublished music, conducting their own research, making their own transcriptions, certainly endears them to this musicologist. They have also charmed Robert Aubry Davis, formerly of the local public radio station we love to hate and now of XM Classics Radio, who was on hand to narrate this Sunday evening concert, in a way similar to how he will frame the recorded version of it on his show at some time in the future.

The program began like many Christmas concerts, with a processional, the Latin hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel, sung by halves of the group in the rooms adjacent to the West Garden Court. The effect was ethereal and austere, but this tune is so durable, so pretty, that you almost cannot go wrong with it. The first half did not really gain momentum until the group got to a motet by Elzéar Genet, Gabriel angelus locutus est. Carpentras, as this composer was also known, is one of the group's patron saints, to whose music their first CD was devoted. He was born about one generation after Josquin Desprez, but his music still has that mostly pretonal character -- like that of Josquin, Obrecht, and certainly Ockeghem -- that has mostly disappeared in the music of Palestrina. A piece called O Kerstnacht (setting a poem by Joost van den Vondel) by modern Dutch composer Luc Jakobs was also a good find, in a sort of coolly dissonant Arvo Pärt, Chanticleer style. The first half concluded with the excellent 2-choir motet Nun komm, der Heyden Heyland, by Samuel Scheidt, sung at an exciting, fast pace.

In this concert, SCL's voices had a nice blend, sounding mostly like a single organism rather than 15 individuals. However, the ensemble seemed a little bottom-heavy, with the high parts tending to be hidden behind the low ones. When the high parts are exposed, the results were sometimes infelicitious, revealing a lack of polish in some pieces. (Total perfection can be represented by Trio Mediæval's appearance at the Kennedy Center earlier this month.) This is one of the common problems with the all-male sound, when you have all adults. Singing high parts over a sustained period of time is difficult. At the same time, there is a joy and strength in this sound and in the dedication of the musicians that is visibly contagious. The West Garden Court was filled to capacity, and I saw an 11-year-old boy in the front row who was engaged and tapping along to the sound. That's a good thing.

As for the rest of the first half, an unknown motet by Petrus Speilier -- located by the Lords in the Library of Congress -- was nice enough, and any piece by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri will have my attention. Unfortunately, this performance of the latter's Ecce enim evangelizo did not grab me. The first of two chestnuts, Ríu, ríu, chíu is always good for some toe-tapping, and the Lords did not disappoint. The second, Charles Wood's famous arrangement of Ding Dong! Merrily on High, received a jazzed-up statement of the refrain after the second verse. The second half was more even, beginning with a rare motet by Thomas Stoltzer, O admirabile commercium, and beautiful selections from Guerrero, Byrd, and Morales. The highlight was one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music, Gustav Holst's touching setting of a truly beautiful poem by Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter.

If you missed this performance, the Lords do not have another concert scheduled until May and June. As for the concert series at the National Gallery, there are no concerts the next two weekends (Christmas Day and New Year's Day). Concerts resume on January 8, with a Viennese New Year Concert by the National Gallery Orchestra, conducted by José Serebrier.


Anonymous said...

The Cheeselords' concert will be broadcast on XM Radio's Vox channel 112, on Dec 24th after 6pm. You can listen to XM free is you have AOL or Direct TV.

Skip West

Anonymous said...

SCL man... could you mention that all those suspiciously stinky but good CDs are availabel at Tower Records at 2000 Penn?

Anonymous said...

Congratulations with the piece called O Kerstnacht of Luc Jacobs but I want to recommend another piece of Luc, called the slow marching band from Jethro Tull. It's a thrill or how do you say that in the States?
I wish all of you a merry Christmas and happy Newyear

Mark Barry said...

Not an American Idol in the whole bunch! Thank you lord....