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Austerity and surprises

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published December 20, 2004

TAMPA - Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Advent season is not all about spending as much money and time in malls as possible. In the church calendar, it covers the four Sundays before the birth of Christ, a period that, metaphorically as well as religiously, calls for preparing the way for big change.

Florida Pro Musica, under director Larry Kent, provided a nice alternative to the commercial hurlyburly of the holiday season Sunday, performing a Mass in Gregorian chant at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Gregorian chant goes back to Pope Gregory I, about 600 A.D., but the music wasn't written down until hundreds of years later. Sunday's performance, which drew a good-sized crowd to the downtown church, followed the form of the Mass for the fourth Sunday in Advent as it might have been done in the 10th or 11th centuries, Kent said, evocatively describing it as "sounds from 1,000 years ago."

Kent was joined by five other men, all in black robes: Peter Baker, David Gillespie, Rim Karnavicius, Tim LaDue and Ian Peacock. Baker read passages from Isaiah, Romans and Luke. They chanted from the loft in back of the splendid domed sanctuary of Sacred Heart, leaving the audience in the pews not to look at the performers but at the stained glass windows, statuary, marble pillars, candles, altar and gold cross.

Chant is devoid of harmony, which can lead to droning, but the six singers gave a well-honed performance that made familiar segments of the Mass seem fresh. Settings of the Latin text were broken up in surprising ways, with a single syllable sung to a dozen or more notes at times, creating a mesmerizing effect.

Prope est Dominus was beautifully unified. The high, flutey quality of Pater noster and Agnus Dei was thrilling.

Only a monotonous Credo, the wordiest movement, broke the spell of austerity and awe that characterized the performance.

For all their monkish intent, Kent and his group followed the old show biz maxim of leaving the audience wanting more.

Less usually is more, but at only 40 minutes, Sunday's concert was too short. The modern ear takes a while to become attuned to chant, and the performance seemed to be over almost before it got under way.

[Last modified December 20, 2004, 00:46:19]

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