BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
TAMPA — It's no surprise that people long for a calm respite in the hectic holiday season. Many find it in Florida Pro Musica's annual Gregorian chant performance, which has turned into a popular holiday event.
"Last year, it took a big leap,'' says Larry Kent, music director of the chamber music group with a bent for Renaissance and Baroque music.
The group performs at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, an atmospheric domed space in downtown Tampa that seats about 600. It was filled to overflowing for last year's concert.
"We had people sitting on the step of the altar rail," Kent says.
"Get there early,'' says Seth Hensel, a harpsichord builder who was visiting with Kent at the music director's house in Davis Islands on Monday. "I arrived in what I thought was plenty of time last year and had to scramble to get one of the last seats in the church.''
Kent, 57, and six other men will chant the Latin Mass for the fourth Sunday in Advent, the period in the church calendar that leads up to the birth of Christ. They chant from the organ loft in the back of the sanctuary, leaving listeners in the pews to contemplate the finery of the church — stained-glass windows, marble pillars, statuary, polished brass, rococo altar — or simply meditate during the 40-minute performance.
Florida Pro Musica bills the concert as an alternative to the hurly-burly of the holiday season, and it certainly is that. Still, Kent is kind of amazed that such arcane music — Gregorian chant goes back to Pope Gregory I, about 600 A.D. — draws a crowd.
"People are deeply affected by these concerts,'' he says. "You see it in their faces afterward. Chant really does have a calming effect.''
Because chant is devoid of harmony and musical accompaniment, it can be tricky to perform. "We spend a lot of time in rehearsal on phrasing, because it's not obvious from the notation where the stresses are,'' says Kent, who gets the music from sources such as the Gregorian Missal for Sundays, published by Solesmes Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in France.
"Each year, we change things up a bit with the Advent concerts, adding a few more psalm verses with the antiphons, a few more of the smaller chants,'' he says. "But the format is the same as usual, the propers and the ordinary, with readings of the lessons in English.''
Florida Pro Musica's 2009-10 season includes five concerts, all at Sacred Heart, where it is an ensemble in residence. The group's newest addition is a virginal, a plucked keyboard instrument in the harpsichord family. Hensel restored it for Kent, who performed several pieces by William Byrd, a Renaissance English composer, at the season-opening concert in November.
"I love the sound of it,'' Kent says of the virginal, likely named for Queen Elizabeth, the "virgin queen'' of Tudor England. "It has a rounder, warmer, less jangly sound than the harpsichord.''
Kent dreams of putting together a solo recital in which he would play music for harpsichord and virginal, demonstrating differences between the instruments. He also figures to use the virginal as a "nice change of pace'' in another program with choral pieces from Renaissance England because "that's a repertoire that's near and dear to my heart.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.