The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Inkspell - May 12, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This chorus is well named because “art” was evident in every aspect of their performance. My first impression was of their energy and focus as they began to sing from memory. This energy and focus continued as they proceeded through each piece in this delightful program. But the experience actually began with a carefully thought out introduction by a spokesperson, who explained the idea of this program, which had been described in publicity as “choral music inspired by masters of poetry.” The spokesperson pointed out the “intrinsic music in poetry” and observed that singing is “a different way of viewing and experiencing poetry.”
But a choral concert rests first on the quality of the singing, and I found it to be exceptional. The blend and balance of the 22 singers made for a pleasing sound, but there was far more to it than that. They sang with extraordinary precision and control as Director Tracia Barbieri led them through an extraordinary range of sounds and emotions, often delicate and always nuanced.
The 90-minute program (with no intermission) itself consisted of five parts: The Romantics, The Mystics, Foreign Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Shakespeare. (Click here to view the entire printed program.) The spokesperson had asked us to hold applause until the end of each part. This was difficult because there were numerous performance gems in each part.
A wide range of composers were represented, including several pieces by Eric Whitacre. Among the best compositions was one titled “Stay Close” by chorus member Laura Sandage. Tracia Barbieri’s own arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” was also memorable. I don’t claim extensive knowledge of choral composers, but I can say that all of this music was sophisticated, yet approachable – made so by the artistry with which it was presented. And there was extraordinary variety in the songs: I never had the feeling that the concert emphasized a particular style of music.
One interesting footnote was in the presentation of Eric Whitacre’s musical setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A chorus member explained that Whitacre set this poem to music only to find that Frost’s estate and publisher had prohibited new musical settings of his poetry until copyright protection expired (in 2038). So Whitacre commissioned new words to his music, which became his popular “Sleep.” The whole story is explained in Whitacre’s website at this link. I’m sure no one will blow the whistle on them, but this evening the Vocal Art Ensemble performed Whitacre’s music with its original inspiration – Frost’s poem.
Having a chorus perform song after song in concert formation is certainly acceptable, and is a format that has yielded many wonderful concerts. But that’s not the way this evening unfolded. For one thing, the singers were always moving around: I believe they had a different formation for every piece – a feat in itself, since all of this difficult music was memorized. But what really added an innovative dimension to the program was the alternation of singing with the acting out of various poems. Experienced actor and director, Russell St. Clair was the Director of Poetry Enactments for this evening, and his work with chorus members shone in their brilliant performances. Good as the singing was, these poetry enactments (all by memory, of course) were a highlight of the concert. And they were necessary to emphasize the concert’s purpose of highlighting poetry, because every spoken word was clear. One can’t say the same for the sung poetry. The articulation of the chorus was exceptional and many of the lyrics came through clearly. But I feel it’s virtually impossible to make every word understood in a good choral performance, a performance that is characterized by beautiful tones and an ebb and flow of musical dynamics. I would say that it is to their credit that this group never sacrificed a beautiful sound to precise pronunciation. There were times when I lost individual words and was sorry to miss them. But I think the only answer would have been to perhaps have read the poem beforehand or to have supertitles, and that would have spoiled the experience.
I find it remarkable that I’ve gotten this far in describing this magical evening without having said much about the director, because not only did she conceive a brilliant program, but she worked magic with her expressive directing. I have observed practitioners of American Sign Language and thought that their work is really an art form, conveying meaning with a wide range of hand, arm and body gestures, as well as facial expression. I got a similar impression watching Tracia Barbieri at work, directing this entire program from memory. Her repertoire of hand and body movements was vast. I dare say her face was equally expressive, and it was almost a pity that we audience members couldn’t see her face. Much of Tracia’s magic came from her hands, and she achieved wonderful effects with the flick of a wrist or closing of thumb and forefinger. But beyond that, she swayed and practically danced. Before the chorus made a sound, the music flowed through Tracia’s body. It was marvelous to watch.
The variety of musical pictures presented by this controlled and disciplined choir culminated in their two encores in response to the well-earned standing ovation. First, they sang Moses Hogan’s familiar arrangement of “The Battle of Jericho.” But not like you’ve ever seen it performed. Men and women faced each other, singing this intense, rhythmic piece – moving closer to each other until by the end individual men and women were squared off as if they were fighting. Wonderful. And that was followed by a reprise of an earlier piece from the program that had couples dancing. It capped off a richly varied evening of sentiment and humor that was a visual and auditory feast.