Music, like all living things, evolves within the boundaries of its environment, exploiting resources whenever possible and coping as best it can with limitations. Church music evolved inside the acoustics of large, open rooms, where stone walls and high ceilings lift the sound, spreading it wide. A listener feels enveloped by it. But this same space also muddies the music that circulates within, and makes words difficult to understand.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina grappled with these conditions in the 16th century, and found solutions that have never been bettered. Saturday evening, the fine acoustics of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on K Street NW--clear, warm and just a bit resonant--helped define and sharpen the sound of the Palestrina Choir for its concert of motets celebrating Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.
One could hear each of the 22 choristers distinctly, yet the total sound was lustrous and superbly balanced. Director Michael Harrison, who founded the Washington-based choir in 1986, rehearsed the singers well--clearly they've worked very hard to achieve such a natural style, with excellent intonation and beautiful phrasing. The "Alleluia" at the end of "O Magnum Mysterium" was so precisely focused and evenly tapered that it sent the senses reeling. This was a program soon to be recorded for the Palestrina Choir's first CD.