The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Voices of Innocence - November 23, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
There is nothing hackneyed about a Vocal Art Ensemble (VAE) concert. It’s always fresh and innovative, and “Voices of Innocence” was no exception. The very idea of a major non-Christmas concert in late November is itself unusual, but take one look at the program, and odds are you’ll see music you’ve never heard before. (Click here to view the program in a new window.) But the music is not just unfamiliar but remarkably diverse. Half the pieces were by living composers, but the rest were from the sixteenth or nineteenth centuries or traditional folk music.
There has been a distinctive theme in all the VAE concerts I’ve seen in the past 2 years. This time, the theme was childhood, and the program was divided into segments titled: Wonder, Play, Innocence, Fun, Warmth, Hope, and Joy. There were introductions for each segment of the program – most of them by children – as well as an initial welcome by genial host and Production Manager, James Williams. Appropriately, five children of chorus members participated in the program, singing or playing an instrument. VAE is one of the most age-diverse groups I’ve seen. But that was accentuated by the active role played by the children in this performance. Their enthusiasm was evident and engaging, and their poise (and talent) was impressive.
As the concert began, I was struck with the serious demeanor of each singer – and director Barbieri – as they entered the stage. Maybe that was no surprise because the first piece, “Solfeggio,” had to have required intense concentration. It was all solfege (i.e. do, re, mi, etc.) with non-melodic sequences of notes, all from memory and held by the different voice sections to create chords that could only be described as “adventurous.” But the result was considerable artistry projected onto this musical canvas. And the reward for this risky venture was Barbieri’s dazzling smile at the end of was seemed like walking a vocal tightrope.
This first piece was performed by only 16 members of the 23-member chorus, and it was interesting to see that each musical selection seemed to have a different complement of singers. This, along with the introductions to each section of the program, resulted in constant movement on an off the central part of the Unitarian Church that served as the stage. Also, there seemed to be frequent changes in the singers’ formations. And there were subtle “costume” changes, as well. Performers were dressed all in black, but a change in color of scarves, ribbons, ties (four-in-hand and bowties), and handkerchiefs – and the way they were worn – marked each new segment of the program. All of this movement and variety created visual interest – a solution to the familiar pattern of a chorus singing one piece after another from risers or in a constant formation.
The second piece of the program, Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” was one of only three that were familiar to me. As I listened, I was struck by the singers’ intense concentration on Barbieri. No surprise. Her repertoire of directing gestures is vast, and on this piece especially, it seemed that she was carefully sculpting each syllable and each sound. I think it’s a pity that audiences can’t see a director the way a chorus sees him or her. Barbieri puts so much into her directing that, if the audience could watch her straight-on as the singers do, I’m convinced that they would gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the music.
None of this music was easy to sing. Maybe that’s what made it so satisfying to hear it done well. This was especially true of “A Child’s Prayer” by contemporary composer, James MacMillan. It was full of exquisite dissonances and changes of mood, highlighted by the two soloists singing very difficult parts that clashed with each other. They wore what looked like prayer shawls that hinted at the somber character of this piece. “A Child’s Prayer” was part of the section on “Innocence,” which began with “For the Fallen.” Only afterwards did I realize that this section of the program was an ironic take on “innocence” – more like "innocence betrayed." “For the Fallen” commemorated those lost in battle in World War I, and “A Child’s Prayer” was a remembrance of the 1996 slaughter of schoolchildren in Scotland.
Much as I appreciated the artistry of this evening’s serious singing, I have to confess that what I enjoyed most were the lively pieces where Barbieri was essentially dancing as she directed, and the chorus themselves could not keep still. The Nigerian “O-Re-Mi Jekajo” was one such piece that had to have been great fun to sing. It seemed to me that Barbieri looked like she was playing an instrument as she directed, and in a way she was – a 23-voice instrument.
The Serbian “Ajde Jano” involved actual instruments and actual folk dancing on the part of the chorus. This change of pace from the previous 16th Century “Echo Song” made me reflect that almost every succeeding song in this concert was a drastically different from what had come before. And that was borne out once again by the following “In Pace, in Idipsum,” which sounded positively medieval. All this emphasized the versatility of this ensemble, which was called on this evening to sing in so many different styles and languages.
Following on that medieval piece was “Rocking Softly,” composed by VAE member, Christina Dolanc. It had a distinctly contemporary sound and was full of interesting musical ideas. And then it was back to a more traditional sound with “Requiem” by Eliza Gilkyson, which had truly luscious harmonies. With so few songs in the concert in English, I became particularly aware of how clearly articulated the words to this piece were.
I think that it’s characteristic of VAE performances to end on joyful and buoyant note, and that was certainly true of “Hamba Lulu,” a traditional Zulu song that was accompanied by choreography that involved a variety of gestures. And a highlight of this piece was the endearing image of the children running out to join their parents as they sang.
But this was not the high point of the concert for the audience, most of whom rose to their feet as the piece concluded. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with an encore, an inspired rendition of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” It started with the singers imitating a marimba by vibrating their lips with their forefinger – a hilarious effect in itself. And as the song proceeded, chorus members imitated playing all kinds of instruments, accentuated by choreography and elaborate clapping. It was pure vocal joy, and an audience that through the evening had been impressed, startled, lulled, jarred, amused, rocked, soothed, and finally energized – left with smiles on their faces. A lady behind me spoke for all of us: “Another great show.”