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ORA's Contemporary Twist On A 16th-Century Mass

Singers in the newly formed vocal group ORA perform music old and brand new.
Nick Rutter
Courtesy of the artists
Singers in the newly formed vocal group ORA perform music old and brand new.

You might call it old wine in new bottles, but what sweet, masterfully crafted wine it is. Upheld by Stillness, the debut album by the young and vibrant British a cappella choir ORA, presents a contemporary twist on a 16th-century classic.

The group, founded in 2014 by Artistic Director Suzi Digby, asked a handful of today's choral composers to create a musical response to William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, an intricate, richly scored polyphonic work popular with choirs around the world. Each composer took inspiration from one of the five movements of the Mass, while Byrd's original (written around 1595) forms the centerpiece of the album.

Roxanna Panufnik (daughter of the late Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik) chose Byrd's Kyrie, the traditional mass opener which pleads for God's mercy ("Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison").

Beginning and ending in hushed reverence, Panufnik's version slowly blooms in contemporary harmonies. Voices interweave in dusky colors, pierced by strands of white light from the upper ranges of ORA's beautifully blended sopranos. Two minutes in, the piece pauses on a lovely drone from the basses, before the vocal engine chugs back up to speed — ominous and inevitable.

Upheld by Stillness is out now on Harmonia Mundi.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.