In case you missed it: Yale Schola Cantorum "Holy is the True Light"

February 26, 2024

On February 17 an audience in Woolsey Hall was treated to a premiere performance, even if not quite the performance that had been planned. Yale Schola Cantorum, led by principal conductor David Hill, debuted a new arrangement of Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi. View the full recording here.

The work is typically performed by massed choirs and large orchestra, but this new version is scored for string orchestra, organ, harp, and timpani, better suited to a chamber choir. Followers of Schola Cantorum may recall being introduced to a chamber orchestration of the Brahms Requiem in 2016—Iain Farrington created both the pared-down Brahms and Howells arrangements. For Hymnus Paradisi, Farrington transferred the original wind and brass parts to organ. Unfortunately, Woolsey’s vaunted Newberry organ chose this week to break down, so listeners instead heard a temporarily installed organ. Although the Newberry’s orchestral registers would surely have done a better job imitating wind instruments, organist Ethan Haman coaxed the surrogate instrument into an adequate substitute role.

Schola Cantorum sang decisively, especially in the opening work, Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Shaw contributed this cantata to a multi-composer adaptation of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, a cantata cycle that addresses seven different parts of Christ’s body. Shaw placed fragments of Buxtehude’s text about Jesus’s hands into the context of the international refugee crisis, in one movement asking singers to call out numbers of displaced people. The singers appeared to embrace the unconventional harmonies and textures as they convincingly conveyed the sense of the work.

Shaw’s cantata was followed by Buxtehude: soloists Ellen Robertson, Sandy Sharis, and Fredy Bonilla joined three Baroque string players and conductor David Hill on continuo organ for the cantata Jesu meine Freude. All three singers delivered their solos with poise and elegance.

Schola Cantorum returned in full for Hymnus Paradisi. Soprano soloist Juliet Ariadne Papadopoulos and tenor Michaël Hudetz soared brilliantly above the chorus. Even without the Newberry Organ’s rich tones, the lines and harmonies of the score were clear. The text of Hymnus Paradisi emphasizes comfort, divine protection, and radiance—this is a serene work, however many performers might be on the stage.

Audiences have only one remaining opportunity to hear David Hill as music director of Schola Cantorum: on April 27 at 7.30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, he will conduct Bach’s Mass in B Minor in his final performance at Yale. That concert will be free and open to the public and will also be livestreamed.

—By Laurie Ongley

—Photo by Robert Lisak