The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Frankincense & Myrrh: A Caravan of Exotic Choral Treasures
December 7, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
With so many Christmas concerts taking place in December, how do you put on one that is not merely an echo of all the others, something special and worth the attention of an audience that has seen many Christmas concerts? You do it through innovative programming, and that’s what I saw in The Vocal Art Ensemble’s first performance of “Frankincense & Myrrh: A Caravan of Exotic Choral Treasures,” at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral last night.
In her brief introduction, Director Tracia Barbieri explained that her idea was to present a view of Christmas through different cultures and time periods, using the idea of a caravan pursuing trade. And she invited us to try to “figure out why I might have chosen [a particular] piece.” Through the course of the concert, 22 compositions were performed in 11 segments with evocative titles, such as “Satin & Silk,” “Frankincense & Myrrh,” and “Gold & Silver.” And for the origins of the music, many countries and cultures were represented: Serbia, Belarus, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Moravia, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Zambia – and even the US. (Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The concert began with a setting of the “Ave Maria” in the form of a chant by the men. This was followed another setting of the “Ave Maria,” but this one was a much more complex, 4-part arrangement with a definite Middle Eastern sound, which led to a piece by Zgodava, appropriately titled “Out of the Orient,” which was sung by the whole chorus in a mixed formation. That brings up an interesting characteristic of this group. Just about every selection was performed with a different combination of singers, standing in different formations. It meant that people were moving between each piece (and sometimes during a piece). And this resulted in sometimes overt, sometimes subtle differences in the sound. But it also created visual interest and refocused the audience’s attention.
As the program proceeded (70 minutes with no intermission), I noted that nearly everything was memorized. Perhaps that’s one reason for the intense concentration of each singer on the director. At the same time, though, I was conscious that virtually all the singers were projecting personality, and that helped immensely in connecting with the audience. The singing itself did not have a great dynamic range, perhaps to be expected with only 22 in the ensemble. Those given solo parts sang accurately, clearly and expressively, but there weren’t big, professional-quality voices on display, as individuals or as a full chorus. But what made these singers engaging and entertaining was the finesse with which they performed. And that began with Tracia’s directing. This is the second time I’ve seen The Vocal Art Ensemble, and for me, Tracia’s elegant and fluid movements are very much part of the show. Of course, it is through her expressive directing that she connects with the singers and elicits such nuanced singing. But seeing this director-ensemble connection in operation is just fascinating to watch and an artistic experience in itself.
As we travelled musically through the Near East, I found myself wishing that words were printed in the program, so I could have a better idea of the meaning of each song. But nearly every one was in a foreign language, so there wouldn’t have been much help there. It might have been interesting to consult translations, but eventually I relaxed and let the music itself communicate meaning, and I don’t feel I missed much at all.
Diversity and variety are the hallmarks of a VAE concert, and I’ve already mentioned the different formations and ensembles with which the various pieces were performed. But my sense of diversity in the program came from other elements, as well. There were many different singing styles, reflecting the distinctive cultural background of a piece (sotto voce for “Caravan,” shaped notes for “Star in the East,” etc.). And although all the choral singing was a cappella, I often noticed singers accompanying themselves with finger cymbals, drum, tambourine, and other percussion instruments. There was also a vocal solo ("Bethlehem" by Laura Sandage), accompanied by violin, and there were two instrumental numbers – one with piano and violin, and the other with guitar, flute, and whistle. Interestingly, with the exception of the guitarist, Ray Frank, all the instrumentalists were also members of the chorus. Then there were choreographic touches, such as everyone swaying to the beat or quartets turning toward each other when singing.
With all of these elements of the performance working to avoid any sense of sameness from one piece to another, the most surprising (and pleasing) change of pace in the programming had to be the three dancers from Fiesta DanceN’ Fitness: Denise Mathieu, Nicole Naar, and Ariana Runquist. They first appeared (in beautiful, authentic costumes) as Flamenco dancers in “El Paño Moruno.” Then later, after Tracia reminded us that it was a characteristic dance in the part of the world the music was coming from, “Byla Cesta” was accompanied by belly dancing. (When have you ever seen belly dancing in a Christmas choral concert?) Not only was this beautifully done, but through much of the dance, one of the dancers was balancing a sword on her head while she twisted and turned, eventually lowering herself to the ground. Amazing! The dancers returned twice more as Irish and finally African dancers. In each case their costumes were perfectly coordinated with the style of dancing, and their steps were professional, and the choreography elaborate and creative. Even more than this, the dancing was seamlessly integrated with the choral music and the overall flow of the program. In no way did it seem gratuitous or extraneous.
Late in the program, one of the singers announced that “we are going to play with light.” This was the beginning of his introduction to Gjielo’s “Northern Lights” in which he went on to talk about the similarities between Northern Lights and diamonds. Then the lighting went way down, and tiny, moving points of light were projected onto the church’s ceiling. There were also faint, moving multi-colored lights that proceeded along the sides of the performance area, and Tracia had multicolored lights attached to her hands while directing – all evoking the Northern Lights. The effect was perfect. The lighting greatly enhanced what was already a beautiful piece – complex, moving, and supremely sensitive.
Eventually, Tracia announced “my least favorite part of the program – the end.” And it was really rather amazing to have a Christmas program conclude with African-themed music. But “Bonse Aba” was a stirring number, suitable for a finale, with choreography by the three dancers from Fiesta DanceN’ Fitness, percussion (of course), and a lot of movement by the chorus. There was hardly any hesitation to rise for a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece. Nor was there much hesitation from our entertainers to offer up a super-finale. I recognized the music as the Nigerian Christmas song, “Bethlehemu,” presented in a very lively arrangement that had all the performers really dancing, and their joy and effervescence was contagious. After “Bethlehemu,” they reprised "Out of the Orient," proceeding down the center aisle of the church, pausing while singing, and then continuing to the lobby.
There was such diversity in the program and in the presentation of each piece, that I could comment on each – but I won’t because it would make this too-long review impossibly tedious. But I must observe that programming is itself an art. The best groups are characterized by the most creative, original programming. And it is clear that The Vocal Art Ensemble is one of the best ensembles in the greater Sacramento area. So much thought went into the crafting of this program. (There was even the scent of frankincense and myrrh as we entered the church.) Thought like that is so enriching to the experience of the audience – and gives them something to think about themselves. At several points during the concert, Tracia spoke directly to the audience to explain what was about to be sung and why she chose it. In one of these moments she said, “I can’t help it. I want to talk about my program. I get so excited by it.” How could we resist sharing her excitement?