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Tenebrae performs at St. Francis of Assisi Church

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

There’s something deliciously ironic about the fact that the British choir Tenebrae will be singing a program of heavenly, spiritually uplifting music on that most sinister of evenings — Devil’s Night.

While rascals are out creating mischief and mayhem, St. Francis of Assisi Church in Ann Arbor will be reverberating with the ethereal sound of sacred music: Spanish and Italian masters from the late Renaissance paired with Romantic 19th-century Austrian and German composers.

That may seem like an unlikely musical mix, but Nigel Short, Tenebrae’s co-founder and artistic director, says there’s a logical musical reason for the juxtaposition.

“The link is the art of polyphony, harmony and counterpoint and how they developed,” Short says from Dallas, the first leg of the 18-member choir’s American tour.

“Brahms in particular was a complete stickler to adhering to these things, and of course he was a great fan of Bach and studied all of his works, so he knew counterpoint well.”

The concert also features three pieces by Anton Bruckner. The Austrian composer, infamous for his dense, seemingly endless symphonies, is a turn-off for some, but his sacred music tends to be brief, compact and lovely, such as his “Ave Maria,” which lasts all of a few minutes.

“I think Bruckner’s skill is how he manages to pack in so much drama and intensity into these little three-minute gems,” Short says.

“The dynamic range and the dramatic harmonic progressions he manages with just four parts are extraordinary. If you’re not a fan of Bruckner’s symphonies, that mustn’t put you off from coming to hear these short works, because I think they are in many ways some of Bruckner’s finest music.”

One piece that no doubt will attract people to the concert is Gregorio Allegri’s sublime “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have Mercy on Me, O God”), written in the 1630s and which Tenebrae has splendidly recorded. The music climbs to an eerily beautiful top C that sounds like a plaintive plea to heaven.

Tenebrae, which means “shadows” in Latin, refers to the Holy Week services in which candles are gradually extinguished on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

“They were my favorite services when I was a boy,” Short says. “I grew up singing in a church that was built in the early 13th century, so with the candlelight I got a feel for the medieval history of the building.”

Tenebrae is an a cappella group, meaning there’s no instrumental accompaniment. But the choir relies on lighting and movement among choir members to enhance the performance.

Tenebrae will close its concert on Devil’s Night with Max Reger’s “Nachtlied,” or “Evening Song.” The words to the Almighty include the line:

“Father, drive the evil spirits far away from us.”

When Tenebrae’s angelic voices are lifted on Friday night, it’s a safe bet that wicked spirits will wisely keep their distance.


Presented by the University Musical Society

8 p.m. Oct. 30.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

2250 E. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor


(734) 764-2538