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Classical Album of the Week: 800 Years of Choral Music Explored by Vocal Ensemble ARS NOVA Copenhagen

August 23, 2021. ARS NOVA Copenhagen is a top-notch vocal ensemble from Denmark, led by celebrated British conductor Paul Hillier, their chief conductor and artistic director since 2003. In ...and… the ensemble explores connections between sacred choral works composed 800 years apart and features short a cappella pieces sung in engaged and spirited performances. The album’s quirky, minimalist title points to the sequencing of these old and new pieces in order to highlight shared keys, motives, textures, words, and subjects.

Eight of the works were composed within the last 13 years and include one each by two Pulitzer-winning Americans, Caroline Shaw and native Philadelphian Julia Wolfe, and six by the venerable Estonian Arvo Pärt. Interspersed are six, anonymously written spiritual songs (called laude, from the Latin “to praise”) from the medieval collection the Laudario di Cortona.

These Italian-language songs are part of an extensive collection compiled in the Tuscan hill-town of Cortona during the 13th century, hidden until their rediscovery in the late 19th century.

Chanted in unison or with simple harmonies, the laude are written in a simple and accessible style, meant to be sung by members of confraternities during gatherings or in processions through towns and countrysides. In Hillier’s imaginative arrangements, their light-textured, lilting, and often dancelike quality make pleasing contrasts with the more complex, austere, and meditative modern works.

Founded in 1979, ARS NOVA Copenhagen is widely recognized as one of the world’s finest vocal ensembles, specializing in the interpretation of choral music of the Renaissance and new vocal music.

On this recording, in which they sing in seven different languages, each word is clearly enunciated and each line beautifully shaped. In solo moments, individual singers emerge seamlessly from the ensemble and in distinctive fashion.

The church acoustic adds just the right amount of reverberation to the performances, bathing this music in a radiant light. Those seeking choral music for spiritual contemplation or celebration will be delighted by this collection.

A Philadelphia native, Mark grew up in Roxborough and at WRTI has followed in the footsteps of his father, William, who once hosted a music program on the station back in the '50s.