Excellence & Wisdom: Orpheus Chamber Singers offers a living museum of choral music

Here’s something that won’t be a surprise to some people: Choral music is a pretty big deal in North Texas. And while numerous DFW choirs have sustained through the years, not all can boast of nearing their 30th anniversary. Dallas-based Orpheus Chamber Singers will have those bragging rights in less than a year.

“There are choirs like ours in a lot of different major cities and it seems to be a rather shared goal to bring choral music, particularly acapella choral music, to the community and to preserve the hundreds and hundreds of years-old tradition of choral music at the very highest level,” says J.D. Burnett, Orpheus Chamber Singers Artistic Director. “Orpheus does that by hiring fantastic singers from around North Texas and pairing them against really high-level repertoire.”

Orpheus is a professional choir—meaning the members are paid, not volunteers—and the audition process can be rigorous. Consequently, it’s an elite group of approximately 24 singers, many of whom have multiple degrees in music and have made music their career. Burnett notes that the advancement of professional choral music is part of their unstated mission, striving to bring understanding of the wisdom, excellence in technique and training of their singers. The range of repertoire is immense, spanning from sacred music of the Renaissance to secular songs of today, often requiring each singer to be well-versed in singing multiple languages. “I often describe it as sort of being a living museum of choral music,” says Orpheus Executive Director Ruth Ann Ritchie. “We perform works that are from all around the world, and from anything from the past six centuries.”

Local and regional collaborations have given the group additional exposure through performances with American Baroque Opera Company, The Women’s Chorus of Dallas, Ars Lyrica Houston, and Texas Camerata. Last year, the group decided it was time to expand their local footprint and have a stronger presence in Fort Worth, which Ritchie and Burnett considered an untapped audience. “We just sort of took the leap and decided to try and see what would happen if every performance we offered in Dallas, we took to Fort Worth,” Ritchie says. “We’ve been really pleased by the reception that we’ve gotten over there… it’s really a part of our mission – that we want to be known as a choir of North Texas, not just Dallas.”

Orpheus is putting that into practice for their upcoming holiday concert Dec. 15 at Fort Worth’s St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, then in Dallas Dec. 16 and 17 at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Church of the Transfiguration.

“Whenever I’m asked about this Christmas tradition, I kind of light up, because it’s such an important one—certainly to Orpheus—but it’s a hugely important one in our community,” says Burnett, who stepped into his role in March 2021 after the retirement of founding Artistic Director Donald Krehbiel, well-known in the choral community for his creative vision for the organization and his passion for the art form. “These programs have been so thoughtfully cultivated for many years prior to my arrival. Don did beautiful work at Christmastime, and it really won the hearts of so many people.” Burnett is framing this year’s holiday theme around notions of cold and warmth, and, in some respects, dark and light. Audience members can expect much of the traditional Christmas repertoire blended with secular pieces, such as Poulenc’s Un Soir de Neige (A Night of Snow), a musical setting of poems by Surrealist French poet Paul Eluard.

Orpheus will import national talent to expand to a 36-voice choir in March for Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, considered by many in the music community to be one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces and a monumental musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church. Though it’s well-known in choral circles, the high musical demands often prohibit choirs from performing the work in its entirety.

“It requires a pretty profound bass section and a lot of choirs just don’t have the low notes to do it,” Burnett explains. “A great thing about a project like this for a group like us is that we’re able to reach out and find some of these people who specialize in music like this and bring them to Dallas to join ranks with us, so we can bring this exquisite music to listeners in North Texas.”

Burnett has conducted the work once previously in Atlanta and describes the listening experience as one that entrances audiences, regardless of how familiar they are with liturgical music. “Before you know it, you’re at the end of this hour-plus concert and you’ve just been absolutely elevated by the power of the voices, the harmonies, the language and the room.”

Performances take place March 16 in Dallas at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and March 17 at Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. It’ll be a big close to the season, but doubles as a pivot launch into their even bigger 30th anniversary season next year. Burnett plans to revisit the repertoire from the choir’s first season and hold a weeklong collaborative event culminating in a performance of Magnussen’s Psalm paired with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. While still in the development stages, the intent is to create a multi-disciplinary experience, possibly involving a local museum, cultural center, and/or a dance company.

Burnett and Ritchie’s enthusiasm for choral music is apparent when they describe the effect it has on audiences at Orpheus concerts, especially newcomers. “They are changed and lifted up, their hearts are opened, and their minds are expanded,” says Burnett. “All of that happens, even when not everybody knows all the nuances of every language or every musical aspect of everything. You don’t have to get it instantly—you just have to receive it.”