The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Mostly Madrigals - May 2, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Every concert by the Vocal Art Ensemble is completely different from everything they've done before. The only thing that is constant is the quality of their performances. This was surely true of the concert I attended at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis on this Saturday evening. Laura Sandage (herself a member of the Vocal Art Ensemble) began the proceedings by introducing herself as "host, commentator, and educator," and she was soon joined by Doug Barbieri (also a member of VAE) to share those roles. They were acting out a script, and sometimes it seemed a little forced, but overall it was both informative, clever, and entertaining.
The Vocal Art Ensemble really embraced the "Mostly Madrigals" theme of this concert, as you can see from the accompanying publicity picture. On this evening (the second of three concerts in this series), rather than the elaborate costumes in the picture, the singers settled for all-black outfits but with the addition of festive Renaissance-style headgear. The costumes of the hosts started simply and became more elaborate as the evening progressed.
The first selection, "Sing We and Chant It" (see the accompanying program for composers and dates) in a way set the pattern for how most of the music was to be presented this evening. The singers, performing in 2 separate groups as a double chorus, moved around as if in a community celebration, singing to each other with smiles and full of personality. Especially when I saw this technique carried into later songs, it seemed like the singers were engaged in conversation or participating in group storytelling, even gossiping. I don't know whether this type of presentation was essential to get across the concept of the madrigal, but it was extremely effective in its own right. For one thing, the liveliness of the singers added an important dimension of interest to the performances. But there is something more. As a choral singer I have had experiences when, instead of always singing in formation and usually on risers, I was able to make eye contact with my fellow singers. And I learned that simple eye contact works a sort of magic. The singing becomes more expressive, more joyful (if that's what the song is conveying), making for a better performance and a stronger emotional connection with the audience. Add a bit of movement, even dancing, and the effect is further enhanced.
After the first piece, and without a break, the chorus performed another, "Sing We and Chaunt It," with almost identical lyrics and a similar sound, but from the early 19th century, instead of the late 16th. It was an implicit invitation to try to discern the similarities and differences between the two songs. And this set up the educational theme of the concert: what is a madrigal? Our hosts took us aback by commenting that, despite what we thought we heard, the first two selections were not madrigals. So they explained the first element of the madrigal as "imitative counterpoint." And this was illustrated by a trio (including Sandage) that gave an impressive performance of "The Nightingale," a very difficult piece that included bird sounds and extraordinarily complex vocal lines.
"Word painting," including "music that imitates the sounds of nature" was announced as another element of the madrigal. To illustrate, Sandage gave a dramatic reading of the lyrics of "Thule, the Period of Cosmography," and then a group of 12 singers (introducing the Renaissance headgear for the first time) gave an equally dramatic performance.
I should mention here that different songs were performed by different combinations of singers throughout the evening, and as I recall, there were only 6 or 7 pieces performed by the whole ensemble of 26 singers. No doubt this helped with the immense task of memorizing the music for this concert. As if the intricate vocal lines weren't enough of a challenge, the singers had to memorize texts that often included obscure vocabulary and usage. And, as you'll see, songs were performed not only in Latin, but in French, Italian, Swedish and Bulgarian!
Another madrigal characteristic is "adventurous and complex harmonies." That was illustrated by a 17th century composition called, "O Care, Thou Wilt Despatch Me." But it was preceded by a piece with its own "adventurous and complex harmonies" that was not a madrigal, the 20th century composition by Kenneth Leighton called "Drop, Drop Slow Tears." This latter song was performed by an ensemble of 16 with an extraordinarily refined sound that required absolute precision of pitch. Indeed, that is one of the characteristics of the Vocal Art Ensemble. Composed of extremely talented, committed singers, the group performs almost exclusively a cappella — and with great accuracy, good blend and balance, excellent articulation, and an unparalleled expressiveness that appears to be crafted on the spot as director Tracia Barbieri draws from her own vast repertoire of directorial gestures. The connection between director and ensemble in this group is the among most intense and intimate of all the choruses I've witnessed in recent years.
In "Cruel, Behold My Heavy Ending," we learned another element of the madrigal: double meaning. This selection was heavy on the theme of death, but our hosts left us wondering exactly what was dying. Then there was the first song in a foreign language: "Si, Ch'io Vorrei Morire." (Click here to see the lyrics and their translation.) Maybe it was the expressive way the piece was performed, ending with singers dying in each other's arms that makes me think that the song is even a bit racier than the translation suggests.
Like earlier Vocal Art Ensemble concerts, this one was performed without an intermission. However, after about 45 minutes, there was a nice change of pace with the introduction of the 5-person instrumental group, Baroque & Beyond. They performed 5 Renaissance compositions, using a wide variety of recorders and other Baroque woodwinds, including an impressive wooden instrument that looked to be 6 or 7 feet tall. At the end of their set, host Doug Barbieri read a poem about dancing, and then a group of 8 VAE members performed an elaborate, authentic-looking dance (sort of like a quadrille) all to the accompaniment of Baroque & Beyond, aided by several other instruments played by VAE members.
I forgot to mention that early in this concert a small table was placed near the first row of the audience, and as the evening proceeded — and to emphasize the points made about the nature of the madrigal — the table was progressively set with bread, cheese and wine — no doubt to help, by metaphor, the visual learners among us.
Among the pieces that followed were "Domarredansen" that had all the men singing in Swedish. We in the audience couldn't understand the words, but it was hilarious nonetheless. Then the women sang "Svatba" in Bulgarian, producing an Eastern European sound that demonstrated the versatility of these singers.
Further emphasizing how far we had come in exploring the various incarnations of the madrigal, the next Bulgarian piece, "Ergen Deda," was an ethnic adventure, full of emoting with unusual rhythms and vocal techniques and ending in an explosion of arguing. Even the bows at the end of this performance were in keeping with its ethnicity, as earlier bows had been reflective of the time period of the song performed. All this was followed by "Au Joly Jeu," which amounted to a 16th-century party. Barbieri directed from a distance to give the whole ensemble plenty of room to move, and they played off each other and moved as they sang. It was quite a spectacle. Finally, and as if to emphasize that madrigals aren't necessarily an artifact of times past, the last 3 pieces in the concert were by contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen.
After earning its usual standing ovation from a very appreciative audience, the Vocal Art Ensemble treated us to an encore, a "Round of Three Country Dances," that was appropriately festive with 5 small groups of singers spread around the church, two of them dancing in front of us. It all ended with what was the most appropriate expression for the occasion, a round of "huzzas" led by host Doug Barbieri.