Outside St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Charleston. Photo by Andy Brack.

Monster trucks aren’t necessarily known for their beauty or solemnity, especially ones dating back to the 16th century. But that’s how Joe Miller, conductor of the Spoleto Festival USA Chorus described the opening of  “Density 40:1.”

Listening to the choir sing English composer Thomas Tallis’s most notable work, “Spem in alium,” from the balcony level of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church felt overwhelming, but the good kind. The acoustics of St. Matthew’s make it easy for someone who may not be familiar with the Renaissance piece to hear all 40 voices singing simultaneously, engulfing the audience in their voices. 

The program, composed of nine pieces by composers from the Renaissance period to contemporary works, explores density and sound within a space but also challenges the notion of how a traditional choral program is structured. “Density 40:1” begins with the 40-voice Tallis and gradually dwindles down to one soloist. 

The first big culling happens as “Spem in alium” gives way to Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s dynamic “Omnes gentes plaudite manibus” for 16 voices. You could feel the building vibrate throughout the piece, thanks to the vocalists and the musicians.

As the number of parts shrinks, more individual vocalists get to shine in smaller groups. During English composer Thomas Weelkes’s “As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending,” a vocal sextet was playful in telling the story of the goddess Vesta descending as Queen Elizabeth I is ascending.

One singer even got a bit frisky during Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s sensual “Sì ch’io vorrei morire hora ch’io bacio amore,” making the “call me” gesture to someone in the crowd and pulling a laugh from the audience.

The program had a great balance of contemporary pieces from American composers David Lang and Caroline Shaw and works from the Baroque and Renaissance periods. In between each song, Miller briefly introduces the piece and how many parts you need to listen to, which is helpful for those who might not be well versed in choral music.

The choir’s rendition of Blake Richter and Taylor Shaeffer’s “The Fox” brought the audience back to their playground days. The vocalists’ claps, quacks and use of spoons as an instrument brought a joyful attitude to the rather serious program.

“The Fox” may be the final piece listed on the program, but Miller surprised the audience by beginning to sing Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg’s classic “Over the Rainbow.” He encouraged the audience to sing along with him and the choir. What was an even bigger surprise was that the audience participation signified the one voice in 40:1, as everyone was in unison. 

“Density 40:1” moves away from the traditional choral program and provides a fresh take on the classical art form through this exploration of sound. 

IF YOU PLAN TO GO: The next show is June 8 at 5 p.m. at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 405 King St. Tickets range from $48-$60.

Tania Ortiz is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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