The Orlando Consort, a superb British vocal quartet that specializes in medieval and early Renaissance music, has long built its programs around themes and inventive, historically apt story lines – a technique that lets the singers mold disparate works into concerts with an appealingly logical narrative overlay.

In “Voices Appeared,” which the Orlando presented in a Portland Ovations concert Thursday evening at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland, the narrative was provided by “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s highly stylized, disturbingly intense silent film about the 1431 trial and execution of Joan, who had been canonized in 1920, only eight years before the film was made.

For the occasion, the quartet – Matthew Venner, countertenor; Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, tenors; and Donald Grieg, baritone – were joined by a fifth singer, Robert Macdonald, a bass who was given plenty of time in the spotlight, singing unaccompanied plainchant during some of the interrogation scenes, just as Venner often sang alone during Joan’s responses. Mostly, though, the program brought together polyphonic works from Joan’s era, some of which she may have heard, since it was used in churches in her region.

The idea of fitting out Dreyer’s film with a tailor-made score has long appealed to musicians, probably because the lingering closeups on Joan’s face (she is played by Renée Maria Falconetti) – placid on the surface, but with a measure of underlying distress – and on the expressions of her judicial and clerical accusers, seem to demand musical amplification and commentary.

Among the composers who have taken up the challenge are Richard Einhorn, whose 1994 “Voices of Light” provided those elements in a score that pivoted between neo-Medievalism and post-Minimal textures, using a text that draws on Joan’s letters, the Bible and the writings of medieval churchwomen (most notably the abbess and composer Hildegarde von Bingen). In 2011, two rock composers – Adrian Utley, from Portishead, and Will Gregory, from Goldfrapp – gave the film a Philip Glass-influenced score for chamber orchestra (with guitars replacing the violins and violas) and a chorus singing wordlessly.

The Orlando Consort’s use of period-appropriate music makes great sense, but involved some deft tailoring. Since the Mass movements and other (mostly) sacred settings the group selected were not composed with the timings of the film’s scenes in mind, some were excerpted. For others, interesting combinations were made – for example, the opening piece, Guillaume Dufay’s “Je me complains,” was performed with a substituted text from a 1429 poem by Christine de Pizan, in which Joan is compared to the biblical heroines Esther, Judith and Deborah.


The score was assembled by Grieg, the group’s baritone, who also supplied a richly detailed program book essay, and a scene breakdown that listed the musical selections alongside descriptions of the scenes they accompanied, with comments giving historical details that further explain Grieg’s choices. Rarely are such useful and all-encompassing notes provided at concerts; but then, the presentation of film as part of the production meant that the lights were so low that these documentary aids had to be either absorbed before the performance, or reconciled afterwards.

You could, of course, just take in the film and the music, and not worry about the details. Works by Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Estienne Grossin and Richard Loqueville, as well as anonymous settings (some, like the “Agincourt Carol,” reasonably familiar) and plainchant dominated the program, but there were also some lovely works by less familiar composers – Johannes Cesaris’ grief-filled “Pour la douleur” and Johannes Reson’s spare “Ave verum,” for example.

The Orlando singers performed this music with the passion and supremely balanced blend that have always been their hallmark. That said, Hannaford Hall might not have been the ideal setting for “Voices Appeared.” This is music that thrives in the opulent resonance performed by a church, and when I have heard the Orlando in the past, it has been in a more acoustically live setting. Hannaford is quite dry, but if there was an upside, it was that the lack of reverberance let you hear the varied textures of the group’s sound with unusual clarity.

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

Twitter: kozinn

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