The Kinnara Ensemble, a 32-voice professional chorus based in New Jersey and founded in 2008, brought its sharply honed skills and brassy energy to New York City for the first time yesterday with an a capella concert called “Reflection.” The spacious Christ Church United Methodist proved advantageous for the program of pieces for double chorus, where two (or more) “choruses” within one sing in multipart counterpoint.
To represent the genesis of this Baroque innovation, Kinnara opened the concert with a motet by Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), for which the singers were configured so as to create a very distinct pseudo-stereo effect that accentuated the rhythmic punch of the early polychoral work. The singers then repositioned themselves for every subsequent work to best convey each piece’s distinct interplay of parts.
The program leaped ahead to the 19th century with three ornate motets by Johannes Brahms, brief but demanding works that call for all the singers’ interpretive ensemble skills. Firmly and creatively led by Artistic Director J. D. Burnett, Kinnara did Brahms proud, injecting rich energy into the first motet and tolling-bell effects into the rhythmically and harmonically complex second, where icy-bright passages relaxed into a subdued interlude. The third had an angelic feel, cloudlike themes bearing an intricate design, in a performance that sounded like absolute perfection.
It may have been a bit of a risk placing the stunning Brahms pieces so early in the program. But the choir’s persistent precision and inspired musicality sustained the concert’s energy and interest through a series of 20th-century pieces.
The artfully layered “Ave maris stella” by Norwegian composer Trond Kverno felt deeply devotional as it kept circling back to its theme. Giles Swayne’s “Magnificat” suggested a mechanical device of some kind – was he inspired by steampunk imagery? – with snatches and bursts of melody smoothing into a metallic sheen punctuated by whoops from the sopranos for a joyous finish.
Three movements from a youthful Mass for Double Choir by Swiss composer Frank Martin venture hesitantly into modernistic harmonies and tone clusters but mostly remain grounded in traditional modes. Very low notes from the basses stood out in the “Kyrie,” and the choir achieved a kaleidoscopic effect in the “Sanctus.”
Like the Martin, William Harris’s “Faire is the Heaven” and a selection from Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom didn’t present much challenge to the ear. But the chorus sang them with an easy sensitivity and controlled power, infusing the Thompson with silky smoothness and giving it a bright, dramatic conclusion.
The closing double-chorus arrangement of the spiritual “Ezekiel” (or “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”) by Stacey V. Gibbs was a pure delight. The singers’ smiles as they slid into a big key modulation transferred to the audience. Throbbing, spirited, good-natured, and fun, the piece was a nice capstone to an impressive New York City debut for a wonderfully accomplished ensemble.