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Pro Musica's sound fit for a sanctuary

Published May 3, 2004

TAMPA - Dressed in black and standing in a semicircle in the apse of 100-year-old Sacred Heart Church, the 11 singers of Florida Pro Musica looked almost insignificant, dwarfed by a towering marble altar and surrounded by magnificent stained glass windows.

But when they sang, that illusion of insignificance vanished. Their voices soared and fluttered, filling the downtown landmark church with a glorious noise that was perfectly in tune with the space.

Florida Pro Musica is a 6-year-old chamber orchestra and chorus based in Tampa. One of its hallmarks is adaptability; the full membership includes dozens of instrumentalists and more than 30 vocalists, but most concerts feature just selected musicians.

Sunday afternoon's season-ending concert showcased 11 singers, mostly performing a capella. On one piece they were joined by organist Kurt Knecht, performing on the church's massive pipe organ, and by 10-year-old treble soloist Nathan Tindall.

The concert was titled "Choral Masterworks of Palestrina and Britten," and liturgical works by those two masters formed the centerpiece of the hourlong performance.

It proved to be a fascinating choice. As conductor Larry Kent noted, Palestrina is one of the greatest composers of Catholic sacred music, and Britten is one of his Anglican counterparts. Besides representing differing theological traditions, the two were separated in time by four centuries.

Performing works by Palestrina and Britten back-to-back made a stunning counterpoint, especially because the divergent artists proved to have so much commonality.

The program opened with two short Mendelssohn songs, then moved on to a Palestrina Mass (Missa aeterna Christi munera). Especially during the Mass, the singers displayed a nearly perfect level of precision and a palpable warmth of tone, no doubt enhanced by the church's full-bodied acoustics.

After the Mass, the singers filed upstairs to the choir loft, where they were joined by organist Knecht for two Britten pieces, A Hymn to the Virgin and Festival Te Deum. The hymn, written when Britten was just 17, was simple and elegant and perhaps the most emotional piece on the program. On Festival Te Deum, the chorus was joined by young Tindall, who performed his brief treble solo ably.

The Britten segment presented a minor challenge for the audience, as the church pews were facing front and the chorus was in the back. Most of the 50 or so people in attendance either took the opportunity to look around the spectacular church - so beautiful that it merits a visit even if there's nothing going on - or simply to close their eyes and let the soothing but inspirational music wash over them.

The concert ended with four short and diverting English madrigals from the 16th and 17th centuries - two by Thomas Morley, a favorite of Florida Pro Musica, and one each by John Bennet and John Wilbye. They set a light and almost sprightly tone for the close of the concert and the season, somehow not at odds with the sacred music that came before, and served to show the versatility of Kent and his singers.

[Last modified May 3, 2004, 01:05:16]

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