The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music Worth Sharing - March 2, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
Who doesn’t like a pleasant surprise? And every Vox Musica concert is full of surprises: never formulaic, always fresh. Indeed, there was so much to like about this concert of “Music Worth Sharing” – music that is rarely heard in a performance setting because it is meant to be part of the liturgy of the Orthodox church. I was sorry to have missed the pre-concert talk because each Vox Musica presentation is so educational. My consolation was the extensive program notes, which I was able to read in the minutes before the performance started. You can read them yourself by clicking here to open the program in a separate window.
At the core of the Vox Musica ensemble are 8 wonderfully talented women. Just one of the innovative features of this concert was the addition of 4 male voices, including that of Music Director, Daniel Paulson. Much of the role played by the men was to provide a drone, against which the women sang the text of the chants that made up the majority of the program. This was particularly apparent in the first piece, “Psalm 102.” There was no harmony in its difficult-to-follow melodic line. And trying to follow it, I found it almost hypnotic or trans-inducing, and perhaps that is part of the point of this music. But there is more, as I realized at a moment when one of the male singers crossed himself. For those of us who noticed the gesture, it emphasized the seriousness and religious significance of the music. We had come to hear a concert; for him, and perhaps for some of the other singers, theirs was an act of reverence. (Click here for a brief sample of the music.)
Nearly all of the first half of the performance consisted of these traditional Orthodox chants. As such, they were performed a cappella. The first note had to come from somewhere, and it was interesting to see Paulson follow the European practice of getting starting pitches from a tuning fork, rather than a pitch pipe – though he had some trouble finding a hard enough surface against which to strike the tuning fork.
Even though so much of the concert consisted of chants, I found great variety among them. In the second selection, “Let My Prayer Arise,” I was first struck by the purity of the solo voices, highlighted in many combinations of duets. And then there was the surprise of a dramatic section in four-part harmony. This piece, like so much of what was offered in this concert, was simply transcendent. In it, as in others throughout the concert, I could not help but marvel at the highly refined technique of these intelligent, sensitive singers.
Despite the origin of this music in Russia and other parts of the Orthodox world, most of the singing was done in English. In a way, that made it seem like less of a journey into another culture, but at the same time, it made the music more accessible. I’ll confess that I have had occasional difficulty at Vox Musica concerts when some of the music has seemed so esoteric or avant-garde. This concert, though, was very different in that nearly everything was, for me, very approachable. I think that may be because this liturgical music was specifically intended to speak to the common man.
For the fourth selection, “Bridegroom Matins & Great and Holy Thursday,” the singers changed their formation, from one with the men in the back and the women in front, to one which mixed all 12 performers in a semi-circle. They proceeded to sing without a director, but with great sensitivity: perfect arcs in each phrase, beautiful blend, and eminently listenable individual voices, so well balanced that none stood out.
There was a change of pace with the next piece, the “Antiphon 15 of Great and Holy Friday,” which had a distinctive Middle Eastern tonality, supplemented with a gong and drone. For this and the previous piece, especially, I noted how the English text came through, due to the excellent articulation of the ensemble. And as for the individual solo voices, here, as throughout the concert, they made for very pleasant listening.
The “Selected Stichera Verses from Great and Holy Friday,” were performed in four-part harmony and – again – in English. What was notable about this piece was the animation of the singers. They seemed filled with the spirit, with no waning of energy from beginning to end and a constant sensitivity to the text, delivered, as before, with precise articulation.
In “Lamentations,” the group returned to its original formation. I noticed that the singers, absent a director, communicated among themselves through subtle gestures and eye contact. Six of the women stood in the center of the altar, holding music. But it was interesting to me to note that the others – 4 men and 2 women – had their music on music stands and stood, almost at attention, with arms hanging respectfully at their sides. They weren’t stiff, but it was clear that, for them, no body movement was necessary to elicit the emotion of the music.
The printed program points out that Assistant Director, Valerie Simonson, was essentially the producer of this concert, responsible for the extraordinary research, arranging, and rehearsing that brought it to fruition. Her role was especially apparent in the “Paschal Troparion,” and in “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” which she had arranged and in which she performed most of the solos and subtly directed the other singers in the choral response.
After the intermission, the men singers were gone, replaced by a piano, and after Simonson’s “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” the program took on more of a contemporary and eventually secular tone. Highlighted were two compositions by Ukrainian composer, Victoria Poleva, who is noted in the program as a “friend of Vox Musica.” The first of these, “The Silent Song,” was directed by Daniel Paulson, and featured a wonderful progression of near-harmonies – I would never dare call them “dissonances.” The second, “Most Pure Theotokos,” included piano accompaniment for the hauntingly beautiful choral parts, highlighted by a soaring high soprano line that was absolutely delightful.
The concert was capped by a selection of six choruses by Sergei Rachmaninoff, all very different, with often-demanding piano accompaniment, and perhaps appealing to more refined musical tastes than so much of the program that had gone before.Like every Vox Musica concert, this evening’s performance was fresh, varied and engaging,
and characterized by an unremitting commitment to excellence.