The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
NATIVUS - December 14, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This remarkable performance, titled NATIVUS and subtitled “A Dramatic Choral Interpretation” pushed the pinnacle of choral concert creativity to a higher level. Essentially, it dramatized the Christmas story while presenting 2 to 4 songs in each of 7 sections, entitled: Mary, Joseph, Miracle, Star, Gifts, Threat, and Triumph. It all began when the costumed narrator, Adam Sartain, greeted the audience and explained what was to come. He introduced Mary as about 13 years of age (portrayed by teenage Ashlyn Barbieri, daughter of VAE Director, Tracia Barbieri) and (eventually) her much older husband, Joseph, portrayed by Clifford Ohmart. Other VAE members played other roles in “tableaux” that preceded or were included in each of the 7 sections. Generally speaking, the costume elements were just suggestive. Mary's costume consisted of a white head headpiece and blue cape; beyond that she was wearing just black slacks and a black top. There were many props – more about them later. The acting was nearly all pantomime, and I felt it was minimal – just enough to illustrate the story – and consistently serious and respectful, even reverent.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The “Mary” segment of music began with the women singing a "pedal" tone from the back of the church while Laura Sandage, tall and graceful, gave a sensitive presentation of the angel Gabriel, singing “Dostojno Jest’,” with a beautiful, pure tone that gave an authentic sound to that Bulgarian folk tune. The next piece, “Angelus ad Virginem,” began as a solo by Andrew Hudson, soon joined by all the men singing in unison, followed by a trio, and concluding in a multi-part male chorus. I won’t try to comment on the ensembles used for each piece, but one of the characteristics of the Vocal Art Ensemble is variety in the complement of singers presenting each song. It’s refreshing and maintains visual interest, though I imagine it is artistic considerations that dictate the different formations.
The third piece in the “Mary” section of the program, was an “Ave Maria” by Wayne Oquin. Along with his unfamiliar name, I noticed that his birth year was 1977. That caused me to scan the rest of the pieces that were to come, and I saw that music from the 12th through 17th centuries was pretty much alternated with the works of contemporary composers. What it meant was that we were to get a stimulating mix of traditional and contemporary harmonies and composing styles. This particular piece seemed to layer difficult, adventurous chord structures over a more traditional musical style, and I found it quite interesting.
Moving to the “Joseph” section of the program, the chorus began singing a new arrangement of the “Cherry Tree Carol” by member Andrew Hudson. I found myself watching them closely. At one point they were singing about anger, and I could see it in Director Tracia Barbieri’s face before I heard it from the chorus. Every choral director has a repertoire of techniques to elicit different sounds from their chorus. Having seen very many directors in performance, I feel that Barbieri’s repertoire is immense and more nuanced than others. Crescendos and decrescendos are more sensitively shaped, there is a wider variety of moods, and everyone’s attention seems perfectly focused. From the audience, it looks like an extraordinarily high level of communication between director and singers. Paying special attention to the chorus during this piece, of course they were producing their typically good tone. But watching their mouths, I could see the great effort they put into articulating each syllable with precision. And the soft singing, required in so many of the pieces in this concert, was simply exquisite.
The arrangement of the “Wexford Carol” was by Barbieri herself, and it was characterized by a high degree of interaction among the singers, including movement as they acted out the text. There was also a remarkable solo section in Gaelic performed by George Haver. In my notes I wrote, “I can’t imagine a more dramatic, more moving setting of this piece.”
Between each section, the narrator addressed the audience, providing succeeding details of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. I felt, first, that the script was itself well written – brief and not overly pious, but always serious and reverential. And it was delivered with the skill one would expect from a professional actor.
The section of the program called “Miracle” began with Eric Whitacre’s translucent composition, “Lux Aurumque” ("light of gold," in English). The narrator had introduced the idea of “light” in his comments, but what followed was just about the most risky, most amazing and most moving thing I have ever witnessed in a choral concert. While the chorus was singing, a second angel (Liese Schadt) accepted from someone offstage a large (12-inch diameter) illuminated white globe. Carrying it over her head, she took it to where Mary and Joseph were kneeling, center-stage, at a wooden cradle representing a manger. The “angel” then placed the globe inside. The globe glowed with no external source of energy, and the effect was nothing short of stunning. It erased every memory of a nativity scene I’ve ever had, with its plastic or ceramic baby Jesus, replacing it with that evocation of the Biblical phrase “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The sheer audacity of this unexpected symbolism was disarming, and to me, it was carried out with great sensitivity, ultimately more moving than any Nativity pageant I’ve ever witnessed.
The next piece of music was a contemporary setting of "The Lamb" by John Tavener. During it, the two angels and all the rest of the singers slowly approached the manger in a highly emotional, living Nativity scene. Then they froze in position as Director Barbieri and Laura Sandage, singing almost off-stage, began Tomas Luis de Victoria's "O Magnum Mysterium" as a duet. They were eventually joined by Andrew Hudson and Alex Neubeck to complete the quartet. The rest of the singers came to life in the singing the “alleluias” of Samuel Scheidt's "A Child Is Born." That "coming to life" was as expressed as much in their bodies as in their voices, and they really made me believe the joy of the alleluias that were repeated so often in this piece.
The next segment, “Star,” was performed mostly in the dark with green moving points of light suggesting the night sky. One especially interesting characteristic of this section is that all the pieces were sung in foreign languages: Bulgarian, Norwegian, and Dutch. And did I mention that all of this program was performed from memory? There is monumental effort and dedication behind each – and especially this – Vocal Art Ensemble performance.
Many props and costume elements were used throughout this concert, but I was particularly impressed with those carried by the chorus members dressed as the Magi: they really looked authentic. The musical part of this “Gifts” section began with the chorus singing (from behind the audience) “A un Niño Llorando” by 16th-century Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero. Evoking the image of the caravan of those Three Kings, they moved in procession until they had surrounded us, and I noticed the additional costume elements (especially headgear) that suggested we were observing something different, i.e. a "caravan." The procession then turned into what struck me as a highly choreographed dance, filled with drama and spirit, representing the excitement of the Magi's arrival in Jerusalem. Considering this and all that had brought us to this point, I found myself recalling all the casual references I’ve heard lately to “Christmas spirit,” and it struck me that what I was witnessing in this concert was conveying the genuine Christmas spirit.
“Here Is the Little Door” by Herbert Howells was an interesting contemporary piece, and watching Barbieri’s hands as she directed, it was as though she were playing an invisible instrument. You might say that that instrument is the emotion generator. Singing is, in the final analysis, all about emotion. And of course, we got a lot of emotion from the music and the technique behind it. But this whole presentation (acting, dancing, props, etc.) amplified the emotion. And I’m sure all of us in the audience felt it.
In the next dramatic tableau, the narrator became a very forceful Herod, giving instructions to his “men of might” (armed with shields and a sword). The arrangement of “The Coventry Carol” that followed was a rich one, beginning and ending with instrumental accompaniment. I learned later that the instrument in question is called "orchestral bells," but it had the sound of a Celeste, providing the perfect delicate beginning to this piece. And of course, the men of the chorus gave an impressive performance of the “Herod” verse.
There’s one more thing I notice about the singers of the Vocal Art Ensemble. I firmly believe that one doesn’t sing just with mouth, larynx and diaphragm. To sing – perform – effectively, you must also sing with your face and your whole body. And that is exactly what these singers do, and do so well. They feel it; I see and hear that they feel it; then I feel at least something of what they feel.
As the “Triumph” section began, I was aware of more costume elements, and when they got into the 16th century “Gaudete” (meaning “rejoice”), there was real rejoicing. To the accompaniment of drum, triangle, tambourine, flute and violin, the chorus, including narrator and director – all while singing – performed an elaborate, thoroughly choreographed dance in pairs and as an ensemble. It was a perfect expression of joy, which we in the audience shared as we rose to our feet at its conclusion. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with two encores, “Sing We Now of Christmas” and a reprise of "A un Niño Llorando.” I, and I'll bet many in the audience, will classify this as one choral concert which we will remember for a long, long time.