The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Vocal Art Ensemble
Comfort Food - December 11, 2015
by Diane Boul
On December 11, 2015, I heard/saw/experienced a phenomenal show by Vocal Art Ensemble at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento, entitled “Comfort Food (Choral Music to Feed the Soul).” It certainly lived up to its name. When you think VAE, think Visual and Auditory Experience, because that’s what this program was.
Led by Artistic Director, Tracia Barbieri, this group satisfies on so many levels. If you like your programs creative, often with complex music you’ve never heard, VAE delivers. If superb vocal technique, energy, and expression is important to you, VAE brings it. If you enjoy listening to very small ensembles, works by famous composers old and new, and sometimes obscure works, please come listen to Vocal Art Ensemble.
VAE is in a class of its own. They present very professional-level theater. This particular program was more like a mixed-language operetta, and could certainly have been enjoyed on this level alone. The one thing that bothered me throughout the performance was the diction. Foreign and English-language songs alike, lacked understanding; and since there were no translations or program notes, these pieces were left somewhat bare.
In a nutshell this program attempted to relate, auditorily, certain musical compositions to the items on the given menu of scrumptious delights that might appear on a multi-course dinner menu. For instance, “Java Jive” would relate to the coffee and tea beverages you might enjoy with or after dessert. OK, so that was an easy connection, but the real challenge would be to “hear,” almost taste, the food and beverages by listening to the melody.
Members of the audience probably enjoyed this program on different levels. More discerning ears may have “gotten” how the songs conveyed the descriptions of the items on the menu. Others may have felt some connection to some of the references, but not to others. Then there were those who just enjoyed the music and the action in each scene.
When Ms. Barbieri explained the program, I felt I was up to the challenge of trying to figure out how the music related to the menu items, even without understanding the lyrics. That only left listening to how the music might conjure up visions of antipasti, veggies, or stew. Well, it wasn’t all “stew” to me. I “got” the oysters, the fondue, the breaded chicken, the chocolate cake and the coffee. Based on this, if my life depended on it, at least I wouldn’t starve. Of course there were some obvious connections, like the first hors d’oeuvre, “New Oysters.”
[See attached program for the entire menu.]
In “New Oysters,” singers presented platters of oysters (unshucked) to begin our dining experience. This was an Elizabethan sales jingle, a round in the collection of Thomas Ravenscroft, which ends with “a banquet for a prince.”
“Scaramella,” a Renaissance song by Josquin des Prez, was sung a cappella by a quartet of men. The blend was exquisite. The song was lusty and boisterous. “La Tricotea” was so spicy; you could almost taste it on your tongue, because of the very rapid, tongue-twisting lyrics. Although the text is a hodgepodge of Spanish and other Romance languages, the implications of its bawdy, drinking-song style are clear enough. “ Missa Brevis #4” by Eleanor Daley included the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. The men sounded as one voice; the consonants in the Kyrie were crisp—from sharp cheddar to mellow, smooth melting brie.
“Amor Vitorioso” literally means “Winning Love,” a madrigal from Northern Italy. What could be more winning than a lovingly prepared serving of pasta and meatballs!
“The 23rd Psalm” is Bobby McFerrin's feminine setting of the 23rd Psalm, beautifully adapted for his mother. This piece represented comfort food to me.
“Ciposutes” (“Bread baking” ) by Bela Bartok was a duet with two women gathering food, cooking, tasting, and eating. I liked the basic simplicity of this piece—like goulash?
“Meerfey,” op. 69, no. 5 (“Mermaid”) has a text by Joseph von Eichendorf which warns of a spirit that lures sailors to their deaths. The tragic tale concludes at dawn; nothing remains of the drowned sailors, and the ship has sunk. This is a gorgeous composition, fraught with tension, sung in German in five parts by five women. This had to be one of my favorite pieces of the evening.
In “Ramkali” the voices imitate instruments, and the text uses imagery of both romantic love and sacred devotion to portray love of the divine. “…. I hope to be united with you, my love. Peace of mind is not mine, my love.”
[At this point I realized that I had been distracting myself by trying to figure out how all these lovely songs related to the menu items, and knowing I hadn’t been very successful. I’d like to hear the program again, without thinking about food, just listening to the splendidly sung program.]
“Rakastava” (“One Who Loves”), written in 1911 by Jean Sibelius, was sung by the entire choir, broken into small groups – some happy couples, some not; some dysfunctional neighbors. “Operatic in nature, its relative harmonic difficulty and the somewhat sexualized subject matter make ‘Rakastava’ the province of advanced adult choirs.” Just perfect for this ensemble, I’d say. “…. Where does she sit, my joy, in what land, my little berry.” How romantic!
Following this special four-course “Dinner for Two,” the concert meal continued with the remainder of the regular dinner, including sides, desserts, beverages, and the final dessert wine.
After a folk-blues-style-with-body-percussion palate cleanser called “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy,” we started on the side dishes with “We Place upon Your Table,” “Nyandolo,” an African lullaby, and a Made-in-the-USA country number with guitar, auto-harp, and spoons, called “Homegrown Tomatoes.” Maybe you know this comedic ditty!
The desserts were yummy with honey custard, caramel, buttered almonds, and sweet dates. The final dessert item was “Alleluia” by Ralph Manuel. Lighting candles progressively around the circle is how VAE delivered this beautiful song. The sounds were rich and smooth with overlapping layers like a chocolate cake. Hmmmmmm!
For beverages we were given the choice of coffee, tea, wine, or mulled cider. “Java Jive” was a slightly different arrangement of Kirby Shaw’s familiar American jazz arrangement. “Votre Toast,” also known as “Toreador Song,” represented the robust, old Spanish wine on the menu, while “Wassail Song” was the rousing Ralph Vaughan Williams toast, “Good Health!”
“Stars” is a gorgeous number by contemporary composer, Erik Esenvalds. I think this represented the ending of a very satisfying meal with a fine dessert wine, the taste lingering on your palate. Set to poetry by Sara Teasdale, it was done with tuned wine glasses and a cappella choir. A fine finish, indeed!
“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” served as an encore. It was the best rendition of this spiritual I’m ever likely to witness. Picture yourself at a raucous religious revival; they made us believers — that Vocal Art Ensemble must be the best vocal ensemble in the area.