The Sacramento Choral Calendar
VOX SING: A Community Project - May 31, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
The great thing about Vox Musica's new home, Beatnik Studios, is that it's a very expandable space. I had attended two fairly small-scale concerts here. Tonight, I'd guess that there might have been 250 folding chairs set up for the large crowd in this high-ceilinged, naturally lighted space with its cement floor, brick walls and live acoustics. By the time the concert was to start, nearly all those chairs were filled, and there was air of excitement because something unusual was about to happen.
When the women of Vox Musica entered from the back of the room in a file, they were greeted with an extended ovation. Following them, their director, Daniel Paulson, got a resurgence of applause. All were dressed in black: the women will gold scarves; their director with a yellow tie to accent his dark suit.
Paulson began what would be a pretty continuous dialog with the audience by noting that the evening's program was the result of a composition contest. Making a tradition of an idea initiated for last year's spring concert, they had invited Sacramento-area composers to submit new music for a women's ensemble. The result was the seven compositions on tonight's program. Of special interest is that the composers were present and would be explaining their works and taking questions. But what made tonight's event even more special — different from last year — is that a wide net had been cast for women singers to join Vox Musica in premiering some of this music. I understand that 56 women had signed up, and when Paulson was ready to begin, they left their chairs throughout the audience and took positions behind the Vox Musica singers.
The first piece, "One Missed Moment," was the work of Jordan Hart, a 17-year-old composer who plans to enroll in Sacramento City College in the fall. It’s his next step to a career in music that he hopes will lead to composing film scores. As would all the composers after him, he spoke about his creative process, what he intended to convey in his work, and the sources of his inspiration. I would advise reading the notes in the program if you want insights into tonight's music and the people who composed it. There is a lot to understand about both the compositions and their creators, and the program notes are detailed and well-written.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
There are several things to point out about "One Missed Moment." It featured an obligato flute part (sorry, I didn't catch the flautist's name) and a soprano solo by a very unusual guest soloist. Tiara Thankam Abraham was billed in the publicity for this concert as a 9-year-old opera singer. Read her bio in the program, and you'll see that she has, indeed, had very extensive singing experience, and she performed, not only in "One Missed Moment," but in 3 other pieces this evening
I'm not sure what I expected from this first composition. Jordan Hart had described it as simple and cinematic. I would rather say "ethereal" and "magical." The guest singers seemed to capture the feeling of the music; the flute was a delightful addition to the basic flow of the work; and little Tiara delivered a pure sound, competent and confident, in singing music that was not easy at all.
After the guest singers took their seats, the Vox Musica ensemble proceeded to perform "Spring's Dawn," music that I could only imagine them being able to sing. In fact, Paulson later commented on how difficult it was, "pushing the vocal envelope." To me it was dense, loaded with nuance, layers of technique, and full of close harmonies. That's not to say it was inaccessible to the average listener. The audience was enthusiastic when the piece concluded, and even the singers applauded composer Krista Penny when she came forward to discuss her work.
Next on the program was Paulson's own composition, "One Sparkle in the Grass." Not surprisingly, he had a lot to say about it. Throughout the evening, he was a personable, genial host — very much at ease, humorous... and erudite. I don't have the music education or experience to keep up with all his explanations, and I dare say there were others in the audience who had the same trouble. But listening to people who are smarter than you is a good way to learn, and I always learn something at a Vox Musica concert. Tonight it was drones. A key part of Paulson's piece was a drone, for which he turned to local electronic artist, Jasper James. Joining Paulson for his explanations, James explained that the sun's radiation was the basis for her drone, to which she added an isochronic drone because of its special way of stimulating the brain. (There's a better explanation of all this in the program notes.)
Another point of interest about "One Sparkle in the Grass" is that the text was by child poet, Hilda Conkling, written when she was 7 years old. That was especially appropriate because Tiara Abraham was returning to solo in this piece. When the music was finally underway, I found it not only intellectually interesting but very listenable and engaging. It was clearly "new music," and intensely difficult to sing. Most choruses would have to fight to find and hold the pitches — and they would probably fail. But as Paulson said when he began to describe this composition, "I know my chorus," and he did, because to me, they preformed accurately and effortlessly. Still, I noticed a point where the pitch seemed to waver. Afterward Paulson commented on this, explaining to the audience that it "seemed like we were out of tune, but we weren't." It was the effect of the drone coming in and out, requiring tone shifts on the part of the singers.
One of the virtues of this concert was that each composition had a different sound. That was certainly true of "Untrammeled Woman," which was built on quotations from Susan B. Anthony and composed by Travis Maslen. I found the piece playful and whimsical, even quirky, but still melodic. It was clear that the 50+ guest singers enjoyed it, as much for the text as for the music. The basic idea was the liberation of women from artificial restraints imposed by the social mores of the 19th century, something about which these modern-day women had a lot to say after the singing concluded.
Christina Dolanc is one local composer who has, unfortunately for us, relocated to Pennsylvania. I have heard her music performed by Sacramento Master Singers and The Vocal Art Ensemble, and I was glad to hear more of her work tonight. The Vox Musica singers started “Nightfall” with humming, and it featured the close harmonies at which they are so competent. I guess I’d have to say that it would be a challenge to the average listener to understand what was going on, but as it progressed I made this observation in my notes: “This is lean-forward-and-listen, not sit-back-and-listen music.” I could see the passion in it, both from the singing itself and from the intensity of Paulson’s directing. After the performance, Dolanc spoke eloquently about her love for choral music and about all that went into her process of composing. I must say I was impressed with the depth and richness of thought that she put into her work. In fact, I would have gotten more out of the piece if she had made these comments before it was performed. And all analysis aside, it was touching to hear one of the Vox Musica singers ask: “Was it composed from the heart? Because that’s how I felt it.” This question was incredibly gratifying to Dolanc because she said that was exactly how she approached the composition.
Vox Musica’s slogan is “Music worth sharing.” That was confirmed in tonight’s performance, but I think one should also say it was “music worth thinking about.” That was certainly true of Derek Sup’s “Love,” which took its initial inspiration from I Corinthians 13. The piece starts in a repetitive pattern, with “cells” of text announcing what love is. Then the mood changes to a darker questioning: “Is love?” It culminates, though, in resignation, with the idea that love “just is.” After the performance it was clear that Sup was very moved by hearing his work performed so well. Still, he was able to talk about the rollercoaster of emotions that it encompassed. A questioner in the audience noted a lot of apparent influences on him, and Sup confirmed that the observation was correct. This reinforced my impression that much of this composition (and of others on tonight’s program) went over my head. But not, apparently, over the heads of the performers or of many in the audience.
For the last piece, the guest singers and the Vox Musica ensemble encircled the audience to perform “I Want to Sing,” composed by Vox Musica member, Heather Razo. By way of introduction, Daniel Paulson explained that it had originally been composed for mixed (SATB) voices, to be performed as a “group sing” by combined choruses at the upcoming SacSings choral festival. For tonight’s concert, it was rearranged for women’s voices and little Tiara Thankam Abraham. Clearly, it worked for this large ensemble, for the audience rose in earnest applause when it concluded. And one of the singers who had been sitting next to me, expressed her enthusiasm with a spontaneous, “That was so great!” I could see that her feelings were shared by the other singers. It truly was a “community” event.