ChoralART, the choir known until recently as the Choral Art Society, opened its 45th season with “Light Shines Eternal,” a program designed to leave its listeners shaken at the end of the first half, but soothed at the concert’s conclusion.

Emotional tugs of war of this sort, with the human spirit as the battleground, are typical in theater, opera and film, but there is nothing in choral music that inherently precludes creating such a striking effect. It’s just a matter of finding the right combination of works.

Robert Russell, the choir’s conductor, found that powerful chemistry in the two large works he conducted at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke’s on Sunday afternoon.

The first, “Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps” (1998) by the renowned choral conductor and composer Donald McCullough, is based on poetry and songs composed by concentration camp prisoners. Polish and Yiddish folk melodies, and even military tunes repurposed to fit poems about life in the camps, are woven through the set. Brief but wrenching excerpts from survivors’ memoirs – and, in one case, Nazi orders about how the Polish intelligentsia, Jews and resisters were to be dealt with – were read between movements.

Since the texts and melodies were all from existing sources, McCullough’s job was really one of compiling and arranging. He did a masterly job, usually presenting the melodies unadorned at first, then in rich harmonizations, either on their own or with piano and cello accompaniments.

Two movements included solo vocal sections: “The Train,” with words by Krystyna Zywulska, and an anonymous melody, was sung affectingly by tenor Darrell Leighton; “Song of Days Now Gone,” the work’s finale, with words and music by Jozef Kropinski, benefited from a powerful but supple performance by soprano Molly Harmon, who was joined late in the piece by mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen.

The piano and cello lines, played superbly by cellist Miriam Bolkosky (who had played in the work’s premiere, in Washington, 18 years ago) and pianist Diane Walsh, were not merely accompaniments – in fact, they rarely served in that capacity. Consistently melancholy, but also achingly beautiful, they sometimes introduced the choral pieces and sometimes offered a wordless commentary that was somewhat more complex and starkly emotional than the choral themes. Toward the end of the work, they had a reflective movement of their own.

The second half of the program was devoted to a work by James Whitbourn a British composer. Russell could have extended the Holocaust theme using music by Whitbourn as well: The composer’s “Annalies” (2004) is a choral setting based on “The Diary of Anne Frank.” But that would have been a full program on its own (that work runs nearly 80 minutes), and even excerpting it would have made for a relentlessly bleak afternoon.

Instead, Russell wisely offered Whitbourn’s “Luminosity” (2007), a variegated meditation on spiritual light, transcendence and divine love, using ancient Christian texts, and in one case, a reflection of a 19th century Buddhist nun. It offset McCullough’s work perfectly, providing a response, if not quite an answer, to the questions McCullough’s piece inevitably raises about the human capacity for unadulterated evil.

Whitbourn’s choral writing has a bright, translucent quality that suits the mystical texts he has chosen, among them the observation, by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century theologian, that “all things have being through the love of God,” and Teresa of Ávila’s description of the soul as a diamond castle.

To underscore both the ancient and multicultural elements of his libretto, Whitbourn accompanies his choral settings with an idiosyncratic ensemble that includes tanpura (the Indian drone instrument, played by Sara Wasdahl); viola (which matches the spirit of the tanpura by using a raga scale, played deftly by Kimberly Lehmann); tam-tam (for climactic percussive emphasis, played by Zach Gagnon) and organ (used in the traditional way, played by Dan Moore).

The ChoralART singers, 51-voices strong, brought a polished, finely balanced sound, as well as admirable clarity of diction, to both works. The narrators in the McCullough were Erik Jorgensen, a member of the Maine House of Representatives; Mark Vogelzang, president of Maine Public Broadcasting; Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El in Portland; and Aileen Andrews, a member of the choir.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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