The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

The Vocal Art Ensemble

LUXThe Many Facets of Light - December 15, 2017

by Diane Boul

“Light. It is all around us, and such an integral part of our everyday life that we may take it for granted” (The Vocal Art Ensemble website, December 2017). Tonight’s concert, entitled “LUX—The Many Facets of Light,” offered the audience a chance to witness and share in the many aspects of light and the diverse emotions connected with it. “Sometimes we appreciate the many different shades of light in the morning and evening; while other times we are frightened by its power, such as in fire and lightning,” reflects VAE tenor Jeremy Wright. Director Tracia Barbieri said she "wanted to create a concert where the music takes center stage, as well as draw on the audience’s visual imagination and personal experiences.”

Admittedly, after this build-up, I was really looking forward to this concert and to, once again, hearing one of my favorite Sacramento/Davis area vocal ensembles. I was mesmerized by this concert, except that I kept looking for the light theme in every song. Mostly it was there, but sometimes it was a bit obscure. Or maybe I just couldn’t figure it out! The Vocal Art Ensemble sang most of their repertoire a cappella, which I really liked. Much of the program was sung with inarticulate diction, which I didn’t like. The shaped vowel tones were lovely, but there weren’t enough consonants to tell the story, with a few exceptions. This being said, I don’t think I’ve ever heard VAE sound so completely like an ensemble. This group was so tight that I never heard individual voices, except solo ones. Within each voice part, it sounded like one voice. The cut-offs were precise. Stunning!

Barbieri introduced the audience to LUX, with a few hints about what to expect. I admit to wanting to know and understand more about the music and the portrayals of the lyrics. I suppose another way to hear/see a VAE concert is to try not to understand or figure anything out. But everyone is different. Meaning, please go hear this group, and decide for yourself. They are enjoyable on many levels.

The concert was divided into five facets of light: Natural, Comfort, Divine, Shadow, and Magical light, which I won’t try to analyze. I will give my personal impressions and some tidbits from my research to explain this concert.

(Click here to open the program in a new window.)

This mixed ensemble opened their program with Charles Wood’s 1912 “Hail, Gladdening Light,” (the lyrics translated from the Greek by John Keble, circa 1836). His magnificent and very popular double-choir motet was sung with a choir-boy timbre and pure, exquisite pianissimos. VAE sang with powerful expressiveness; the dynamics highlighted this piece. What a great opener! Following was the spirited canzonet (similar to a madrigal), “Fyre and Lightning,” by Thomas Morley. Written for a duet of treble voices and characterized by dance-like rhythms, this is from “The First Book of Canzonets to Two Voyces,” published in 1595. “Fyre and lightning from heaven fall / and sweetly enflame that hart with love arightfull / of Flora my delightfull / so faire but yet so spightfull.” Don’t you love those lyrics?

The “Ave Maris Stella” was a mixed-choir arrangement of a solo song written with Norwegian words in 1898. Considered Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg later set it as an a cappella hymn and felt the Latin words of this song of praise to the Virgin went best with his setting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really distinguish the Latin words, but the spiritual value of this work is in hearing the tenderness of maternal love through the mellowness of the singing. In one variation, the opening lyrics are: “Hail, star of the sea / nurturing mother of God / and ever virgin / happy gate of heaven.”

Sometimes called “The Campfire Song,” “Szello zug tavol” (“A breeze is blustering afar”) is a traditional Hungarian song, arranged in 1966 by Lajos Bardos. Crouched around a campfire, four VAE women were soon joined by the rest of the women. Was it the light and warmth of this campfire that brought them together? Written in a minor key, this piece had a really haunting melody. One explanation of this song is that it was a fun folk song about meeting your friends by the campfire and enjoying the environment. However, its meaning was transformed after World War II, when campfires were beacons for survivors in Hungary. The song went from “I can’t wait to meet with you again” to “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”

“Juletræet med sin pynt” (Danish for “Christmas tree with its decoration”) was written by Egil Harder in 1940 and arranged by Phillip Faber in 2014, to Mogens Lorentzen’s lyrics of 1939. The choir nicely portrayed the cozy fun of the universal tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas, turning on the lights for the first time, and feeling the warmth of friends and family.

“I Will Keep the Light On” was by American composer and Davis, CA resident, Sarah Majorins, composed specifically for VAE and this concert program. This piece had beautiful dissonant harmonies, so I would have loved to have heard (or even read) the English lyrics. I think the soloist was using the light of a lantern to guide the way for the others, maybe to light the way home, or maybe they were lost.

“O Nata Lux,” written in 1997 by Morten Lauridsen, is the third in his series of unaccompanied sacred motets, Lux Aeterna. A vocal sextet presented us with a good lesson in how small ensembles listen to each other. This was wonderful to witness, and created tight choral clusters surrounding the solo parts. “O Light born of Light / Jesus, redeemer of the world / ….” This piece gives a deeply felt impression of internal light.

“Star in the East” is a traditional American hymn from the Sacred Harp tradition of a cappella singing which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The melody (possibly arranged by William Walker) is anonymous, but the text, which is a meditation on the Christmas story, was written in 1811 by Reginald Heber (except for the first verse, which comes from Gardiner Spring's Brick Church hymns). The men of VAE really delivered this song; superb diction and joyful expressiveness invited us to share the story and sing along (but we didn’t). It started as a quartet, blossomed into a quintet, adding singers as the song went on until all the men were assembled. This was a mood-elevating crowd pleaser.

Published in 1998, “Videntes Stellam Magi” was arranged by Mack Wilberg (noted for composing and directing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). This boisterous, energetic, syncopated piece portrays the Magi's great joy at seeing the star in the East. Instrumentalists (see program) started this number off with a trio of singing Magi; they were then joined by the rest of the men and then the women. I’d like to hear this dynamic arrangement again.

A work created by the Spanish Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria in 1603, “Versa est in Luctum,” is a beautiful polyphonic funeral dirge with haunting lyrics set for six voices. “My harp is turned to mourning / and my organ into the voice of those that weep. Spare me, Lord / for my days are nothing.” (Job 30:31; 7:16) So, in the shadow of light is death?

“Prayer” by Vijay Singh is sometimes called “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis,” but it’s entirely absent from the saint’s writings. The anonymous prayer traces back only as far as 1912. It may have been written by Father Esther Bouquerel, founder of La Ligue de la Sainte-Messe in Paris where it was first known to occur. “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace / …..where there is darkness, light / where there is sadness, joy /….” Was the woman with the shawl and candle, who passed around light, a representation of the answers to all of life’s negatives?

After viewing the aurora borealis in his native Norway one Christmas, contemporary composer, Ola Gjeilo, wrote “Northern Lights.” Set to the Latin text from Song of Solomon, this piece is about beauty: the terrifying beauty of a lover’s eyes or the terrifying beauty of God. The Song which begins, "Pulchra es, amica mea" (“Thou art beautiful, oh my love”), is thought to be an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. Sung in part by a soloist with a serene, ethereal voice, to a backdrop of swirling light projections, you could almost feel the powerful beauty of the northern lights. The reason for the hand gestures escaped me — maybe because I couldn’t see very well from the third row.

Written in 1984, Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi’s “Double Double” was a fun, interesting piece, and yet it was very dark. With music set to the poetry of William Shakespeare (Macbeth), Mantyjarvi’s score conjures up the eeriness of a witch’s spell or a séance. The theatrics worked really well for this piece; they actually made me shudder a little. Even after re-reading Shakespeare’s poem, I still was unable to figure out how this piece fit into the theme; maybe it was just that darkness is the antithesis of light. Of four listeners polled, not one had any idea about this either; but they didn’t seem to care, probably because it’s a great work. Speaking of the audience, I think there were probably 100% more people in attendance than there were the last time VAE sang at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I’m so glad this Davis-based group is being recognized in Sacramento.

“Winter” was written in 2003 by Joshua Shank. I’ve read that the text is an amalgamation of poems that E.E. Cummings created in awe of nature, and it seemed to capture perfectly the beauty of silently falling snow. The lush cluster chords and dissonances did make me feel the harshness of winter, but I didn’t know that the text, in part, reads: “snow . . . snow / beautiful is the unmeaning of silently falling everywhere / snow.” Well-formed vowels made “Winter” other-worldly, and I could tell that this was a very difficult piece with as many as eight voice parts most of the time.

There were ethereal moments, and moments of awe or possible inspiration in “LUX—The Many Facets of Light.” I liked the mostly a cappella program, and the appropriate instrumentation was a nice contrast and well executed.

My wish for the audiences of The Vocal Art Ensemble is for there to be a pre-concert discussion of the pieces in a program. Not to give away the surprises or to destroy the imagination of listeners, but rather to have an opportunity to get into the mind of the composer, the poet, and the artistic director. It could be such a great teaching moment. It could be enlightening!

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