The Rose Ensemble presented a spectacularly tight concert of music about St. Francis of Assisi in St. Joseph Chapel, which is both a great acoustic setting for Renaissance music and the home of the School Sisters of St. Francis. The Franciscan nuns in the audience were a reminder of the music’s sacred nature; so were the singers’ readings by and about the saint.
Most early-music groups seem to organize their concerts around themes, and St. Francis is a pretty good one; Rose Ensemble artistic director Jordan Sramek has found a half-dozen or so medieval and Renaissance pieces whose lyrics honor the prominent saint. The balance of the program was liturgical music from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The Minnesota-based group, which numbered up to 10 singers and two instrumentalists, sang most numbers without sheet music and with minimal conducting. Sramek, who was also half of the tenor section, offered the occasional hand gesture, but otherwise, the many interlocking and constantly moving vocal lines stayed together solely by virtue of the singers’ acute eye contact and listening.
In a group such as the Rose Ensemble, voices are meant to blend, which they did superbly, but a few singers stood out in solo verses. Soprano Kim Sueoka’s crystalline voice seemed to perform a duet with itself, thanks to the chapel’s resonant acoustics, and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw brought plangent intensity to her solos in “Stabat Mater.”
The women of the group presented a meditative hymn to the saint, “Sia Laudato San Francesco,” sung in very clear Italian. Although the program offered a translation, an audience primed for a spiritual experience probably would have connected at a deeper level had the piece been sung in English.
Much medieval music was written down only as melodies, and modern performers fill in their own harmony lines in accordance with the rules of the period. They were strict; singer Mark Dietrich said afterward that medieval musicians considered thirds to be dissonant. That helps explain what we hear as the lulling sameness of some pieces, since the third is pivotal in modern harmony.