The Sacramento Choral Calendar
RENEW: A Vox Christmas - December 2, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
Sitting in my seat in St. John’s Lutheran Church, waiting for this concert to begin, my attention went to the looping slideshow on a screen at the front of the church that announced some of what makes Vox Musica unique. Some of the slides read: “Cutting-edge performances,” “Dedicated to collaborating,” and “Commissioned and premiered more musical compositions for chorus in the last 7 years than any other ensemble in Sacramento.” Having attended three of the last four performances of this eight-woman group, I can attest that all those claims ring true.
You can get an even clearer idea of what Vox Musica is about from this introductory material from the program: “Vox Musica was founded in 2006 to fill a niche of untapped potential in Sacramento’s budding classical music scene. This women’s ensemble enjoys the privileged position of nurturing the choral arts by combining outstanding vocal artistry with innovative programming. Vox Musica is committed to excellence in performance of diverse and challenging choral literature for women’s voices, and is dedicated to promoting new works, including many premieres and commissioned works. Through collaborations with composers, conductors, choirs and musicians from around the world, Vox Musica’s featured concert projects have included collected works from the eighteenth-century Venetian Ospedali, eastern music from India, Persia, and Georgia, works for guitars and women’s voices, music for Taiko drums and women’s voices, and a concert project featuring electronic music and women’s voices.”
So much for the thinking behind Vox Musica. How about this concert? Here is how it is introduced in the program: “Vox Musica, known for adventurous programming of plainchant, organum,, early polyphony and contemporary music, breaks new ground with its performance of “RENEW: A Vox Christmas.” Adding to the ensemble of voices is saxophonist Steve Lishman and trombonist Dr. Dyne Eifertsen. At its core is Vox Musica’s choice of music, much of it open to interpretation even in its day, by composers such as Pélotin (c. 1160-1240), Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553, and Francisco Guerrero (c. 1528-1599), in addition to a range of earlier anonymous (much of it Hungarian) material. What could a saxophonist and trombonist possibly have to do with this choice of repertoire? Not much perhaps, but together the voices and instruments explore various esthetics using the instruments as drones, interludes, additional voices, accompaniment, and as improvised enhancements. These combinations create some wonderful and rare colors that will transform the music into sublime and indescribable moments.”
Indeed there were sublime and indescribable moments – many of them. So much of the music was simply ethereal – and insanely difficult to sing or play. Each of the singers is a young accomplished musician, and most are or have been serious voice students. I think it’s fair to say that vocally they are in their prime, and that showed for many of them when they had a solo passage. But beyond their vocal quality, they are very intelligent singers, performing with sensitivity and nuance, though much of that refinement is clearly attributable to the direction of Daniel Paulson, whose wizardry in programming and directing were a big part of what was on display this evening. And as for the saxophone and trombone, I felt that they melded beautifully with the voices in every instance except perhaps one where they seemed unnecessarily overpowering.
(Click here to open the concert program in a separate window.)
To my uneducated ear, there were many similarities in the sounds and styles of the first few pieces – not that they were anything less than delightful. But “Viderunt Omnes” was the first big departure, requiring a very different singing technique and attention to complex rhythmic patterns without words. It had to have required intense concentration.
After the contrapuntal earlier pieces, the blend of the first “Ave Maris Stella” (by the 16th century Morales) was tight and eminently satisfying. The second “Ave Maris Stella” (by the contemporary Miskinis) was a total departure from everything before, with extremely difficult harmonies. It was clearly “new music” with difficult entrances, unexpected note progressions, and harmonies that would be dissonant to the average listener. For singers – and director – it must surely require enormous confidence to perform music like this with such a small group. Each voice is critical, and any mistake would stand out – not that I was aware of any.
“Bruma,” the other contemporary piece (by Andrew Smith), certainly sounded experimental, pushing the bounds of my experience of and appreciation of music. I found myself asking, can I hear something besides cacophony? It’s certainly an interesting challenge, knowing that those who study, rehearse and perform a piece like this (let alone compose it) are hearing something much more substantial than what I’m experiencing on first impression. But maybe my fellow audience members, who applauded so enthusiastically, were also hearing “music” that I failed to grasp.
So much of this concert required skills that go far, far beyond those required of the average choral singer. To me, these young women were constantly performing vocal gymnastics – with an agility that must surely have required intense rehearsal, concentration – and talent. I can’t say whether the awe I felt was enhanced or diminished when I caught one singer giving a sigh of relief at the end of one particularly difficult piece.
The program ended with a segment that the program titled “Carol Sing,” and which began with lovely arrangements of “What Child Is This?” “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Then the ensemble sang an interesting arrangement of “Silent Night” that began in German with a drone from the saxophone (if I remember correctly), then proceeded to a 2-part duet in English, then to a full ensemble arrangement, loaded with the 2nds and 7ths that these women are so good at singing.I think I could say that this concert was an education – or potentially so – especially if one followed the extraordinarily detailed and well researched program notes. It was certainly unlike anything else I’ve heard, a unique musical experience – but that is true for every Vox Musica concert. And I expect to keep coming back for more.