Music » Music Reviews

Musica Spei celebrates its 25th anniversary with the holiday album ‘Today Is Born’

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Even during a pandemic, the holidays are a time to celebrate. And for Musica Spei, the Rochester-area chamber choir specializing in medieval and Renaissance music, celebrating the season also means commemorating its 25th anniversary as an ensemble with a new CD.

With “Today Is Born,” the conductor-less vocal ensemble presents 14 different Yuletide compositions, previously recorded live during performances at St. Anne Church. And while these Christmas songs are sung exclusively in Latin, it’s not hard to identify “O Come, o come Emmanuel,” sung here as a plainchant.

For a choir with only 16 singers, Musica Spei produces a satisfyingly full sound, without the acoustic muddiness that can sometimes accompany performances by larger choruses. And because of the reduced numbers, a lack of unity would be easier to hear.

But the group’s musical chemistry is evident, particularly with regard to the pronunciation of vowel sounds and the synchronous use of dynamics. This cohesion has a kind of celestial effect on Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est,” or “Today Christ Is Born” — particularly with the soprano section’s sparking melodic lines in the higher vocal registers.

Whether the songs’ sacred texts are heralding the mystery of God taking human form or the wonders of the virgin birth, “Today Is Born” gets to the heart of the Christmas holiday, in a way that is both reverent to the early vocal traditions of western classical music and an inspired change of pace from the ubiquitous commercial quality of much holiday music.

The choir gets vital contributions from musicians Ben David Aronson, Denver Pascua, and Dillon Downey, who play the Renaissance-era predecessor to the trombone, the sackbut. Their playing lends a regal, if melancholic quality to music by Josquin des Prez and Guillaume Dufay, which only amplifies the voices’ poignancy.



For its part, Musica Spei’s 25th anniversary album is a spacious collection of holiday music that will not only bring cheer to fans of choral music, but may also provide sounds of uplift and tranquility in uncertain and unsettling times.

Musica Spei's "Today Is Born" is available by request. For more information on the CD, go to musicaspei.org.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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