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Review: The Rose Ensemble makes listeners forget the world outside

‘Tis the season when an afternoon of soulful, serene music heard in a convent chapel is precisely what the doctor would order.

Early Music Now presented just such a concert Sunday afternoon (a repeat of the concert they presented Saturday evening) featuring the St. Paul-based Rose Ensemble, in the St. Joseph Chapel in the convent of the School Sisters of St. Francis.

The group, nine vocalists and an instrumentalist, presented their “A Rose in Winter: The Miracle of New Life in the Dark of Night” program at both concerts.

Constructed of sacred music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the program found the groups performing en masse, dividing into smaller groups, occasionally featuring members in vocal solos. Most of the program was sung a cappella, but several numbers included vielle, harp, drum, psaltery and recorder.

Moving from music by Hildegard von Bingen to Orlando di Lasso, Guillaume Dufay, Robert White and Michael Praetorius, the singers changed languages from Latin to French, English, and German, and varied their tempos and expressive tone from piece to piece as well.

These constant shifts created a musical kaleidoscope of sorts, which presented something that was constantly shifting and changing, and always mesmerizing.

The Rose Ensemble's trademark, superbly blended sound became something of a wonder when a solo voice rose above the ensemble and one could hear the enormous differences between the singers’ individual sounds.

The ensemble put those timbre differences to fantastic use, creating small ensembles in which one combination of singers created a reedy, edgy sound and the next something smooth and warm.

The group gave a pristine performance, with all members clearly on the same page in terms of interpretive nuances, sense of pitch, and their execution of attacks and cuts offs.

The two Rose Ensemble concerts also featured world premiere performances of Victor Zupanc’s “A Brighter Ray,” a wonderfully chromatic, richly harmonized piece commemorating Santa Lucia. Opening with vocalists making rushing-wind sounds, followed by some delicate chimes, the piece blossomed into thoroughly engaging, expressive vocal writing.

So transporting was this afternoon of music, that it was a bit jarring to see the weather as we exited the convent. Oh, that’s right, snow.

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