Putting together a concert of works linked by an overall theme may seem a surefire way to lend coherence to a program. The risk is that in searching for pieces that support a chosen theme, especially unfamiliar scores, you wind up with novelties of lesser musical interest.
That risk has never deterred Clara Longstreth, the longtime music director of the New Amsterdam Singers, the admirable New York chorus founded in 1968. She has a real knack for devising thematic programs of fresh, worthy pieces, the latest being the ensemble’s Thursday night concert at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side. Titled “Full Fathom Five: Shakespeare in Song,” this lovely program of mostly a cappella works offered both musical delights and insights into the poetry.
Shakespeare in song is hardly an unexplored subject. Still, where else but at a New Amsterdam Singers concert would you have encountered rewarding Shakespeare settings by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a Finnish composer and teacher born in 1963, and Knud Jeppesen, a Danish musicologist and composer who died in 1974, along with a batch of settings of passages from “The Tempest” by the British giant Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Swiss master Frank Martin? As always, the singing of this choir of nearly 70 voices had warmth, texture and confidence.
“Four Shakespeare Songs,” by Mr. Mantyjarvi, is the work of an intelligent craftsman with a feel for Shakespeare’s language and sensibilities. His version of “Lullaby,” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was tender, slightly eerie and harmonically alluring. In “Double, Double Toil and Trouble,” the magic spell of the witches in “Macbeth,” Mr. Mantyjarvi conveyed the weirdness of the imagery (one ingredient in the brew is “finger of birth-strangled babe”) through music that evolves in jagged phrases over droning bass riffs, with a hint of medieval harmony.
Vaughan Williams wrote “Three Shakespeare Songs” in 1951 as a test piece for a national choral competition, and the music is quite daring. In “Full-Fathom Five” (one of three settings of this passage from “The Tempest” by different composers performed on this night), Vaughan Williams gives Shakespeare’s lines to the deepest voices, above which upper parts sing pinched clusters of notes, whispered effects and evocations of bells.
The New Amsterdam Chamber Chorus, comprising two dozen singers from the ensemble, performed Martin’s “Songs of Ariel,” mysterious music that conveys the roiling undercurrents of this character, a restless spirit bound in service to the brooding Prospero. Max Blum, the chorus’s assistant conductor, led the ensemble very ably in works by Mr. Jeppesen and Robert Washburn.
The male voices had their own set of pieces. But the women got an even better opportunity to show off through a beguiling performance of Berlioz’s subtly tragic choral song “La Mort d’Ophélie,” performed here in a version with piano accompaniment, played delicately by Pen Ying Fang. You know a program is inventive when this Berlioz work is its most familiar item.