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England's choral scene is vigorous, with many groups exploring different aspects of the country's long legacy of choral music. The vocal chamber ensemble ORA (it is ambivalent about the term "choir") takes that as a starting point for further creativity rather than simply as a given. ORA, it writes, "was born out of a belief that we are in a second Golden Age of choral music, comparable with that of the Renaissance." It has, accordingly, been active in commissioning new music. "We love the choral music that is being written today and we are passionate about commissioning, recording and performing new works," it writes. It aims to commission 100 new works by 100 different contemporary composers within the ten years following its appearance in the mid-2010s.
ORA's founder and artistic director is Suzi Digby, who received the Order of the British Empire honor from Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. With a background in music education, she has pursued the development of immersive, novel concert experiences. ORA, an ensemble of 18 virtuoso voices, draws its membership from other top U.K. choirs. Unusually, it has announced that their primary focus will be on recordings and on commissioning new music, however, not on concertizing. It plans to release two albums per year, generally pairing classics of English Renaissance repertoire with contemporary works that address them and reflect upon them, both musically and in terms of the larger issues that the Renaissance originals addressed.
Thus ORA's Harmonia Mundi-label debut, Upheld by Stillness, featured a performance of the Mass in Five Voices by William Byrd, joined to works by Roxanna Panufnik, Owain Park, Charlotte Bray, and Roderick Williams that both take up the musical content of Byrd's mass and reflect upon its function among people -- in Byrd's case, Catholics -- living in a time that was hostile to them. ORA released Many Are the Wonders, combining works by Thomas Tallis with works by six contemporary composers, in 2017. The year 2020 will see a recording of a 40-voice motet by James MacMillan, recorded with Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium. ~ James Manheim