Superb Choral Debut by EUOUAE

Lisa Hirsch on August 16, 2010

On Friday, Old First Concerts presented the premier concert by EUOUAE, a new chorus whose membership is drawn from many of the Bay Area’s professional and semiprofessional choirs. Formed and directed by Steven Sven Olbash, EUOUAE performed the rarely heard Messe de Tournai, a musical milestone in that the 14th-century Mass is the first-known complete polyphonic (multivoiced) Mass collected in a single manuscript.

What a treat it was to hear this unusual, otherworldly repertory performed with such commitment and beauty. The chorus sang with vitality, tonal clarity, excellent intonation, and tremendous focus throughout a long and demanding program.

Olbash chose the program cannily, interleaving Gregorian chant with each Mass movement and closing with Jacob Obrecht’s motet setting of the Salve Regina. While EUOUAE reads from “old notation” and uses rehearsal techniques dating from before music was written down, there are women in the group even though women would not have sung sacred music in church during the Middle Ages.

Olbash assigned all chant and a single polyphonic work to the women, who sang from the choir area behind the altar. Olbash conducted the chant in a fluid style that followed the melodic contour of each chant. Kudos to the women in the chorus, each of whom had at least one solo: Alice Ko, Rebekah Wu, Celeste Winant, Ann Moss, Toni D’Amelio, and Andrea Klein.

Contrasts Aplenty

The men sang the Mass movements standing on the altar proper. The Messe de Tournai is written entirely for three vocal parts, which Olbash divided up among varied trios of countertenors, tenors, basses, and baritones. Sometimes two trios alternated singing sections of a Mass movement, and occasionally two trios would sing together. The physical separation of the men and women, the alternation of musical styles, and the various smaller groups of men all provided useful contrast during the program.

The Mass itself also provided a good deal of variety. While the movements are collected together, they are not written in the same style and very likely were not written by the same composer. In some movements, the lower voices sing sustained tones while the upper voices sing an elaborate decorated melody above the sustained notes. Other movements were more vigorous, with a sharper, almost dancelike rhythmic profile. In at least one movement, the melody seemed divided between the voices, a compositional technique called hocket.

The Messe de Tournai and the works interspersed among its movements are all far more harmonically austere than later music, with bare-sounding fourth and fifth intervals dominating, to the point that a third or a passing major triad caught the ear in a way that such intervals never do in Mozart, for example. Hearing the full chorus sing Obrecht’s long and luscious Salve Regina after the bulk of the concert was positively startling, the work’s richness and density almost overwhelming after the light feel of the earlier polyphony.

Getting a new performing group off the ground is never easy, and a superb debut such as EUOUAE’s is rare. I wish Olbash had not interrupted the spell cast by the music with remarks from the stage between pieces, but beyond that tiny complaint all I can say is: More, please. That Obrecht motet would make a wonderful jumping-off point for a program of 15th- and 16th-century Flemish music.