The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Vocal Art Ensemble
GODAI - May 25, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This could be the most innovative choral concert I have seen this season. It was an artistic blend of singing, performance on a variety of instruments, dance, and the spoken word – both exposition and poetry. As I’ve come to expect from the Vocal Art Ensemble, the programming was inspired, a collection of music most of which I’ve never heard before, but which supported each sub-theme of the concert and demonstrated the amazing versatility of this chorus and its director. The singing itself was of the highest quality, extraordinarily disciplined and accurate in performing very challenging music; but more than that, highly nuanced with Director Tracia Barbieri’s passionate attention to every detail. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring, and that was precisely the reaction of my seatmates (whom I had never met before) and who were attending their first VAE concert.
This concert series was a milestone for the Vocal Art Ensemble, the final series in their fifth season. I attended the second of the three concerts, held at the Davis Unitarian Universalists Church. This church is a very unusual concert venue, and perhaps especially suited to this concert. I believe I could say that the shape of the auditorium was that of a long ellipse with ceiling and walls in a warm wood. This caused the audience to be very spread out. For a while, I felt sorry that I didn’t arrive earlier because 20 minutes before the start of the concert the room was nearly filled, and I was forced to sit far on the right. As it turned out though, I missed nothing, and I had a good vantage point from which to watch Barbieri’s interaction with her singers.
The concert was explained in VAE’s publicity as “a musical invocation of the Japanese Godai – the 'Five Great' elements that create our world” – earth, air, fire, water, and void. The evening’s program began with an extended explanation of these elements and their symbolism by the first of three spokespersons, who, in this first appearance, read from a script. This was followed by the chorus singing “Sakura” – in Japanese. They were dressed in simple black outfits, with dark red sashes. Director Barbieri carried the same theme in her outfit, but with a distinctively Japanese hair style. This piece had the chorus spread throughout the room, positioned among the audience. I was immediately impressed with the pure sound of each individual voice near me.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The “Earth” section of the program was then introduced by a poem, which was accompanied by solo guitar and the first of many interpretative dances, this one in a Flamenco style. (See the program for the names of all the individual performers.) Then the chorus took the stage to deliver “Agnus Dei” with gentle, well-blended, contrapuntal singing. During this first performance by the chorus from the center of the room, I was startled by the impression of people singing behind me, since I was far from the performers. I can only conclude that the unusual shape of the room was responsible for this unexpected effect.
The next piece, sung by a smaller group of 16, was the first of many demonstrations of the virtuosity of this ensemble. “Hosanna” involved difficult rhythms and patterns of rests, along with foot stomping, and it must have required intense concentration – and preparation. To complicate things further, a dancer entered and swirled around Barbieri as she was directing. Along with everything else, it was an amazing feat of memorization (and I should note that all of tonight’s music was performed from memory).
As the next speaker was introducing “Air,” a dancer was soon maneuvering around her, accompanied by flute and Celtic harp. All these dances were creative and expressive, but in this one in particular, I noticed that the drama the dancer was portraying was as much in her face as in her movements. The expressiveness was continued in the dynamics and tempo of the extended phrases of “Con el Viento,” which was sung by a group of 11 women. As this piece was performed, I noticed something that sets Barbieri apart from just about every other choral director I have observed. It’s her large repertoire of gestures in coaching her singers. She doesn’t just keep time: she jabs, slices, swirls, lifts, pulls, stretches, and sweeps. And the directing is as much from her face as from the rest of her body, as she mouths the words to every song. All this, too, from memory, as with the singers.
With the addition of another women, the female ensemble proceeded to “Las Amarillas,” an energetic piece that involved clapping and slapping of thighs in an accelerating tempo, punctuated by the kind of cry you hear in Spanish dances. Indeed, the increasingly complicated movements amounted to dancing in place: it was nothing short of a choral tour de force – but it was only one of many yet to come. I should mention here that I can’t comment on each piece, though each is worthy of commentary, because each one displayed a special excellence of singers, instrumentalists and dancers. Suffice it to say that the concert was consistent: there was no let-down in the vocal quality or creativeness of each piece that I witnessed.
The “Fire” segment was introduced by a poem that was more acted than read, and by a dancer in a fiery costume and a routine that certainly evoked the subject. And the first song in this section was extraordinary: “Double, Double Toil and Trouble,” with lyrics lifted from the meeting of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Actually, it was more of a tone poem than a song. And I’d venture to say that there was more drama in the singing of this piece than in any staging of the play. As ingredients were added, singers took off their sashes and flung them into the imaginary pot. Barbieri’s direction looked as if she were pulling people to the center of the circle, and she looked positively evil at moments. The piece included a witch’s cackle toward the end, and concluded in a flash of light. It was simply amazing. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it at a choral concert.
The dramatic intensity continued with “Dies Irae,” sung by the men of the ensemble. In directing it, every emotion required by the piece passed across Barbieri’s face (and through her body), punctuated by the occasional dazzling smile when something went especially well. Before the piece concluded, the fire dancer returned and danced around and among the men, who were standing in rows.
By the time “Dies Irae” concluded, we were ready for the release of tension offered by the “Water” segment. Along with the speaker, this was introduced by a dancer in a Middle Eastern costume, complete with sashes and fans, who performed to music provided by a handbell choir and string bass.
When the chorus returned to sing “Ngana,” I found myself thinking that so much of what I’d been hearing had gone beyond the usual boundaries of a choral performance. Apart from the dancers, spokespersons, and instrumentalists, it was what was required of the chorus that was so unusual: the clapping, slapping, arm movements and other gestures – all in the context of sophisticated rhythms and harmonies, and all from memory – that goes beyond the capabilities of nearly every other chorus I’ve heard. And to top it off, I heard sounds from the chorus tonight (sounds, not singing, mind you) that I’ve never heard in choral concerts before. Furthermore, nothing this group does is straight: everything is loaded with expression, drawn from their vast repertoire of feelings and actions.
Another song I must comment on is “Dulaman,” because I’ve tried that piece in a group I sang with some time ago. We had to give it up. But the men of VAE performed it flawlessly tonight, with its numerous Gaelic verses, unusual timing, and wickedly rapid tempo – complete with head-nodding in unison – and without a director. Stunning.
“Cloudburst” was perhaps the only piece I heard tonight that didn’t delight me. Still, the virtuosity in its execution was unmistakable: strange vocalizations to accompany one dissonance after another. Surely, this is one of Eric Whitacre’s most difficult compositions. And as I listened, it struck me that this, and maybe other pieces in this concert, were creations of the moment that could never be precisely duplicated. The notes might be the same each time, but not the emotion. I think it would be fair to call it “performance art.”
Before the finale piece, “Alleluia,” Barbieri spoke to the audience, acknowledging the many contributors to tonight’s concert and noting the fifth anniversary of the Vocal Art Ensemble. As “Alleluia” concluded, the audience had no hesitancy in rising to a standing ovation. After several minutes of applause, we were treated to the happy, bouncy sound of the gospel song, “I Can Tell the World.” That just amped up the good feelings, and we kept applauding until we were given another encore: a reprise of “Sakura,” with which the concert began. I was criticized for overusing the word “remarkable” in an earlier review of the VAE. I haven’t used it yet, but I will now: the Vocal Art Ensemble is truly a remarkable, remarkable, remarkable organization.