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Review: Skylark Vocal Ensemble soars with intimate evening of harmonies to Virgin Mary

Matthew Guard (right) conducts the Skyland Vocal Ensemble.
Matthew Guard conducts the Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Matthew Guard (right) conducts the Skylark Vocal Ensemble.

Matthew Guard founded the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a chamber group of 17 choral singers from Boston and Atlanta, in 2011. Guard is a Harvard graduate who studied conducting during his undergraduate years but changed course soon afterward, earning an MBA and working as a business strategy consultant here and abroad. After five years, he rediscovered his initial vocation and the Skylark Vocal Ensemble took flight. And it’s a gem, a group of proficient soloists who have come together to create a dynamic and inspiring whole.

The Skylarks are performing three concerts in the Atlanta area this season, and the first was heard Sunday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Sandy Springs, a fitting milieu for a concert titled “Something About Mary. It was an intimate, a cappella evening of ancient, Romantic and modern hymns to the Blessed Virgin.

The women in the group began the concert from the entrance of the sanctuary singing “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” a chant consisting of a single melodic line excerpted from the Canonical Hours, a Roman Catholic service dating from the Rule of Benedict circa 520. The Canonical Hours comprise prayers, psalms, canticles, responses and antiphons sung every day in a regular order. In fact, Guard programmed all four Marian antiphons, chants typically sung in monasteries during Compline at the close of the day, immediately after Vespers.

Skylark’s male chorus took up the energetic monody “Salve Regina,” and then the entire ensemble delighted us with Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Renaissance-era composition of the “Ave Regina caelorum” in five-part polyphony. The antiphons concluded with a dramatic rendition of the 1535 “Regina caeli laetare” by Nicolas Gombert: 12 individual melodic lines, minimalistic and lush. The acoustics of the sanctuary refined and amplified each looping melody, and the ensemble sang sans vibrato, with a remarkable unity of timbre.

From time to time, Skylark members stepped forward, breaking the wall between performer and audience, to introduce certain selections and advise us on what to listen for in them. We heard four of the seven parts of  Brahms’ Marienlieder Op. 22, strophic settings that were most likely influenced by Bach. The settings are syllabic, with rare moments of surprising melisma. One narrative, “Der Jäger,” recounted the Annunciation and introduced Gabriel as a hunter blowing his horn. The entire song was subdued and monodynamic until the end, when the singers forcefully proclaimed “Da empfing sie Jesum Christum” (“She then conceived Jesus Christ”) and followed it with a lovely pianissimo “in ihr jungfräulich Herz” (“in her virginal heart”).

Of particular interest was Skylark’s set of songs by 20th-century British masters Benjamin Britten and John Tavener. Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin” features a double choir, the first of which sang of Mary and her task on earth in English. The second choir, merely a quartet, functioned as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting in Latin at regular intervals. Tavener’s “Hymn to the Mother of God” consisted of a double choir in canon. The ensemble gave us a wash of sound with long, sustained tones, vacillating in and out of dissonance.

The evening came to a close with several well-chosen and dissimilar settings of the “Ave Maria,” by Robert Parsons, Anton Bruckner and Sergey Khvoshchinsky, leaving us to contemplate the Blessed Mother’s grace and the beauty of the human voice.

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