A Glory of Voices

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TENET in its 2012 TENEbrae performance of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres, featuring Avi Stein (organ), Molly Quinn and Jolle Greenleaf (sopranos), Sarah Cunningham (viola da gamba), and Hank Heijink (theorbo)

SACRED MUSIC IS alive and well in New York.  One reason why this is so is a New York-based vocal ensemble known as TENET, whose critically acclaimed performances have included works spanning a period from the Middle Ages to the present day. In residence at the historic St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on New York City’s Upper West Side, and under the artistic direction of soprano Jolle Greenleaf—called “a major force in the New York early music-scene” by the New York Times--TENET features "distinguished soloists who shine in one-voice-to-a-part singing and as joined voices in small ensembles.” 

The ensemble is marking the season of Lent this year at New York’s Trinity Wall Street and St. Ignatius of Antioch churches with a series of early music concerts entitled TENEbrae, featuring major Renaissance and Baroque composers, from February 17-March 27 at various locations in New York (see below for details).  The concerts encompass works by Buxtehude, Couperin, Tallis, Gesualdo, Charpentier, and Victoria, as well as a work the ensemble performed last season to great acclaim and intends to offer annually in a new concert tradition, Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres.

For details about TENEbrae and the vision behind TENET we spoke with Artistic Director Jolle Greenleaf.

CLASSICAL TV:  TENET performs the vocal music of many centuries—from Medieval works to those of our own century.  What is there about sacred music that gives it such a special place in your repertoire?  Is there great sacred music being written today?

 JOLLE GREENLEAF:  It's true!  TENET offers performances of a wide range of vocal music that spans many centuries, but our focus is primarily music of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.  And while we do offer a fair amount of secular repertoire, we frequently perform sacred music because we spend a great deal of time performing in churches.  

There is a wealth of incredible sacred music to draw from, which makes for a happy marriage of music and performance space.  I believe that the room where our performances take place have an important role in the music we perform and the audience's experience while hearing the music.  In that sense, the room and its acoustic are vital to a good overall performance!

While we do some modern works and love to collaborate with living composers, TENET has not performed many sacred works past the Baroque period.  We had a wonderful collaboration last fall with composer Gregory Spears offering his Requiem on a series at Park Avenue Christian Church, but otherwise we have not had the opportunity to do many others.  In addition, we are looking forward to performing Avo Pärt's Passio in April of 2014 at Carnegie's Zankel Hall on David Lang's curated series!

TENET’s Artistic Director soprano Jolle Greenleaf (photo by Andrew Strawcutter)

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CTV:  Your current series of performances takes place in Trinity Church at Wall Street, honoring Lent and the extinguishing of candles in the Christian custom known as tenebrae, which is Latin for “shadows.”  What repertoire have you chosen for these performances and what is it about Trinity that makes it such a special place for these performances?

JG:  Some of the most passionate, expressive, and intense vocal music of the Renaissance and Baroque were written for Lent, and specifically for Holy Week.  Having spent extensive time performing this repertoire in church services, it seemed a natural fit to create a series honoring the tenebrae tradition.  Until recently, I was employed at Trinity Wall Street as a member of Trinity Choir and Trinity Church is a lovely performing space with state of the art audio and video recording specialists.  Knowing that TENET could share these performances with the public as live concerts and online at Trinity's website made the collaboration very appealing as I know we can reach so many more people!  The church is self has a wonderful history and a beautiful interior.  I feel it will be a wonderful place for people to come and experience this incredible music.

CTV:  Among the special qualities of TENET’s singing is a remarkable clarity of choral and vocal sound.  How do you achieve this sound?  Is there as aspect of it that goes beyond actual technique—that is, some kind of spiritual component or a psychological one among the singers?

JG:  This is such an interesting question, and one that speaks to the heart of why I do what I do.  Yes, the ensemble strives for clarity of sound both in our tone production as it is most appropriate for the repertoire we perform, but also in that we perform most often one voice to a part, which gives each vocal line its own distinct character.

But there is definitely a psychological and spiritual component that goes beyond the technical aspects of presenting the music, and that is much more difficult to quantify.  I believe that a positive state of mind for those performing is absolutely essential to achieving the kind of emotionally satisfying experience I hope to offer our audience and community.

The way that we as performers offer music to an audience and the mindset we are in when we do this has a huge affect on the audience-- we have seen this so many times.  Complete strangers moved to come talk with us, moved to tears, moved to write emails and letters after the concert is over.  Not just to say that they enjoyed the music, but that they felt genuinely moved by what we offered.  There is an exchange of love, joy, peace, energy that takes place.  I believe this is rooted in the process.  When the performers are treated with care and honored for their time and talents, they are more able to perform with an open mind and heart.  This translates to an experience for the audience that I can't fully understand or explain.

While this sounds like something that is a natural part of performing, my experience working and living in this field is that this is very hard to attain and requires incredible care to foster and develop.  I strive to make every TENET performance one that embraces our audience.

For more about TENET and the ensemble’s upcoming concerts, see their website: www.tenetnyc.com.  For details on TENEbrae, including video, go here.

Below, TENET’s Artistic Director soprano Jolle Greenleaf (far right), with frequent collaborators Hank Heijink, lute and theorbo, and Molly Quinn, soprano

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