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Review: Hark! The herald Rose Ensemble sings!

The elegance and candlelit beauty of the Sacred Heart Music Center and the celestial voices of the Rose Ensemble combined to create a magical evening of medieval and Renaissance music.

The ensemble’s “A Rose in Winter/The Miracle of New Life in the Dark of Night” concert had nearly a full house for its one-night stop in Duluth. The audience was treated to an evening aglow with sublime peace and joy, perfect to ease the stresses of the week before Christmas and to warm the soul in troubled and uncertain times.

Despite the icy blasts outside, the crowd was enveloped in the warm, dulcet tones of the 10 incredibly talented vocalists (five men and five women).

Celebrating their 21st year, the internationally acclaimed ensemble takes as their inspiration for their name and the title of their holiday program, the rose, an ancient symbol of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. In celebrating “the blossoming of new life in the coldest days of winter,” the concert’s programming was a seasonal delight.

As Jordan Sramek, the Rose Ensemble’s founder and artistic and executive director explained, “We like to ‘pelt’ our audiences with obscurity.” That obscurity, however, gave an entirely refreshing alternative to the traditional holiday concert.

With nary a reindeer, jingle bell or jolly old St. Nicholas reference to be heard, the program is instead, according to Sramek, “full of the unexpected” in a sophisticated potpourri of music, new to the ear of many in the audience.

The complexity of the mix of languages, including French, English, German and Latin, and the contrast of styles, from the simplicity of the plainchants to the complexity of the mystical poetry and melodies of Hildegard von Bingen, also added to the evening’s richness and diversity.

While most of the music is sung a cappella, some songs included harp, drum, recorder and period instruments such as the vielle and psaltery. The group’s dedicated instrumentalist is Ginna Watson, with others in the ensemble also playing instruments on some pieces.

Written for voices and harp, a new piece, “A Brighter Ray” by Victor Zupanc, was commissioned specifically for the Rose Ensemble and had decidedly the most modern and unique sound of the evening.

This Scandinavian-inspired piece, with its homage to ancient herding calls (kulning), has wonderfully intricate vocal harmonies and some unusual sound effects from instruments and voices. The song, celebrating the solstice and the honoring of light in the Santa Lucia celebration, was a stirring end to the first half of the program.

Whether singing together, with all the voices melding in a gorgeously blended wall of ensemble sound or when a solo voice is soaring above the rest, the group’s virtuosity and nuanced interpretations captivated the crowd from the first note to the benediction.

The beloved German Christmas hymn “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”) seemed especially appropriate for this “Rose in Winter” concert.

One lyric line from the song translated means, “A rose has sprung up, from a tender root ... and it has brought forth a floweret in the middle of the cold winter.”

Performing in Sacred Heart’s glorious space, with its resonant acoustics, the Rose Ensemble musically kindled the memory of a single perfect rose, touching the hearts and sparking the imaginations of their winter-bound audience.

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