Passionate, precise Tenebrae choir to come to Ann Arbor

Sunday, October 25, 2015 - 4:45pm

During Holy Week before Easter Sunday, Tenebrae is a ceremony in Catholic and several Protestant liturgies in which ceremonial candles are gradually extinguished on Good Friday to symbolize the death of Christ. For Nigel Short, English choir singer and director, memories of church ritual and music as a young choir boy inspire a singing career that has spanned decades. Short retired from singing in 2001 to found the world-renowned choir, Tenebrae, who will appear at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Ann Arbor through the University Musical Society.

“I started the choir in 2001, mainly because I have adored choral singing and choral music since the age of seven,” Short said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I started singing in my local church choir. I was completely mesmerized by everything about it. I just turned up at the medieval church, and I heard these boys singing and it went into my soul.”

Tenebrae is a virtuoso choir of about 20 singers whose repertoire spans five centuries. From the 16th to the 21st century, from sacred music to secular, Tenebrae’s mission is to bring music of universally beautiful and accessible music to audiences under the watchwords: “Passion & Precision.”

Joining their musical rigor with movement and light, Tenebrae thoughtfully elaborates on their music with a kind of theatricality that alerts audience members to the concert space and its acoustics, and discourages a static divide between performance and audience. This decision provides audiences with a “fresh perspective” on liturgical music and early music.

“As a choir boy, my favorite services were the ones where we would sing by candlelight and we would move around,” Short said.

But where movement or light could detract from the group’s precision, Short opts against including it.

“It has to be pretty sensitive and very effective,” he said.

Short explained his inspiration to incorporate light and movement comes from his appreciation of those elements in his choir activity as a young person in a “medieval church.” In Tenebrae, you have an evocation of a likely old, monastic practice of integrating movement and light that disrupts conventions and expectations. Through their secularized appeal to Christian ritual, Tenebrae’s “fresh perspective” crafts an image of monastic rigor and intimacy for audiences who might not necessarily have any religious experience.

For Short, the “passion” is inseparable from the “precision” even at the level of program curation. While some programs will be organized around a theme, Short arranges them by the degree of focus necessary for the musicians, with concerts culminating in the most virtuosic pieces.

“We kind of try to get ourselves into a zone, if you like, in terms of concentration and focus. And we try to take the audience with us,” Short said. “Within that sequence, there can be anything. There can be secular music, it can be very fast, energetic or it can just be beautifully soft, smooth, serene, ethereal, heavenly sounds that people can just lose themselves in and be transported by. The themes can vary hugely.”

Tenebrae is a group that believes wholly in music as a transformative force. Presenting their selections with enthusiasm and technical perfection, Tenebrae celebrates music as a universal communion which Ann Arbor audiences will have the opportunity to see later this week.

“I don’t think that the aspect of making music accessible to an audience or choosing music that is accessible, or what can be described as accessible has ever really appeared on my horizon.”