Atlanta Schola Cantorum brings ancient church music to life

For most people alive during Europe's Renaissance, a reawakening of the (perceived) values of classical antiquity, the world was an extremely wretched and dangerous place -- filth, famine, pestilence, rats and death everywhere.

Yet despite the ugliness, or perhaps as a call to an otherworldly paradise, sacred church music was an escape of extraordinary, timeless beauty. A lot of music has been written in the 500 years since, but to this day nothing surpasses the perfect clarity, the purity of sound or the sublime structure of Renaissance choral song.

"People don't go away whistling the tunes," says John Whitt, director of Atlanta Schola Cantorum, a formidable collection of 35 a capella singers. "This repertoire is about the sonorities and the inner play of the voices -- the polyphony that's called ‘imitative counterpoint,' " a sort of melodic echo between the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

The choir, which was formed in 1974 specifically to savor Renaissance polyphony, performs in its 35th season Dec. 4-5 in two reverberant churches with music for Advent and Christmas in a program called "Alleluya, a new work is come on hand!"

This season marks conductor Whitt's third leading the schola. Originally from Virginia, he was educated at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. After he and his wife moved to Atlanta for her job, he became organist and choirmaster of St. Bede's Episcopal Church. By day, he's a graphic designer.

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Literally "school of singers" in Latin, the first schola cantorum was a choir for the medieval popes in Rome, singing Gregorian and other types of chant. Atlanta's modern schola is a bit more adventurous. There's a narrative theme to the concert, following images of the prophesy, the mother and the child. And it dips into three centuries of sacred music, highlighted by motets of the holiday season from a supreme composer, Palestrina -- his "Canite Tuba" and "Alma Redemptoris."

Along with Palestrina, other 16th century masters on the Schola program include Englishmen William Byrd and John Amner. Peter Phillips' "O beatum et scarosanctum diem" is a 17th-century works on the program, and the singing concludes with a clutch of 20th-century sacred song, on very old models, by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Benjamin Britten.

Like Leonardo and Michelangelo, Palestrina is special. At one point in his career he was composer for the Sistine Chapel, and his life and music were soon surrounded by beatified legend, not least that he took dictation from the angels and, a superhero robed in opulent velvet, that he saved polyphony for the world at a time when the conservative pope was fighting the Reformation and considering restoring chant, with its clearly audible words, to all sacred services.

"It comes down to the fact that Palestrina's music is so perfectly constructed," offers Whitt. "It's not especially earthy or jarring, and it's not full of surprises. His music is serene, and he's a good deal more subtle than a lot of his contemporaries, without being overly elaborate. He's the crown prince of Renaissance composers."

Pierre Ruhe blogs about classical music at ArtsCriticATL.com

CONCERT PREVIEW

Atlanta Schola Cantorum. 8 p.m. Dec. 4, St. Bede's Episcopal Church, 2601 Henderson Mill Rd., Atlanta and 8 p.m. Dec. 5, St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, 1790 LaVista Road, Atlanta. Suggested donation $10-$15. www.atlantaschola.org

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