The Sacramento Choral Calendar
ZEHN: A Vox Christmas - December 18, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
As I entered the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on this rainy Friday night, it occurred to me that there could hardly be a more perfect setting for a concert by Vox Musica. Just how perfect it was, I was about to discover.
The concert was a little late in starting, and it seemed that the audience of about 200 was getting restless. Eventually the 12 women of Vox Musica entered, dressed in black with red scarves, worn backwards around their necks, like academic hoods. They formed a single line in front of the stairs at the foot of the altar and began singing “Low How a Rose E’er Blooming” — in English. Director Daniel Paulson, in black suit and red tie, conducted from the center aisle, 20 feet behind the first row of pews. My instant impression was that the sound was sublime, enhanced by the natural reverberation of the Cathedral. The arrangement of this piece (by Paulson) was traditional and familiar, but there was little that was traditional or familiar in the music that was to come.
Applause can break the continuity of a set of music, and with carefully planned sets, Paulson had to figure out how to keep the audience from reacting too soon. The answer was to have several of the singers sing a repetitive bridge, consisting of a 3-note pattern. They did this after completing the first piece while they moved to new positions on the altar stairs. From there, they proceeded to sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” again, but this time in the original German. According to the program, the arrangement was by contemporary Swedish composer, Mĺrten Jansson, and it became much more elaborate than the first version, overflowing with fresh musical ideas.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window. "ZEHN" by the way is German for "ten," a recognition of this being Vox Musica's tenth anniversary year and a nod to the frequency of German texts in the concert.)
At the conclusion of "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," Paulson spoke to us in the audience, explaining that the evening’s program had been “adjusted to align with the space.” Indeed, the accompanying program, interesting as it is, was not much help in following what was performed this evening, because everything came in a different order. (Mercifully, Paulson shared the set list with me afterwards so that I could correctly identify the music in what follows.) After these words of greeting and explanation, he introduced “Exultate Justi” and didn’t speak to us again until just before the intermission.
As “Exultate Justi” by Lodovico Vladana (c.1560-1627) was being performed, I reflected on how beautifully these carefully selected voices blended with each other. With its intelligent singers and creative, perceptive director, Vox Musica is truly an elite women’s ensemble.
The next piece, a “Magnificat” by contemporary Canadian composer, Christine Donkin, stunned those of us in the audience. It was essentially a solo by Susanna Peeples. She stood at the top of the stairs with the rest of the ensemble facing her from the base of the stairs, their backs to the audience. As Peeples sang — with a beautiful tone, relaxed and expressive — one after another pure note was added by others in the ensemble, eventually producing a very dense chord. Listening to this development, I wrote in my jottings: “pure magic.” And despite the variety of notes, Peeples continued confidently, relying on her excellent sense of pitch. The clarity of the sound produced by Peeples and the rest of the chorus was simply exquisite, perfect for the cathedral. The piece itself was very long — maybe over 10 minutes in length — but who would ever want it to end? When it did conclude, we finally got smiles from soloist and singers, and the applause of us in the audience went on and on and on.
The “Chester Carol” that followed was a spirited song by contemporary English composer, Katherine Dienes. It was very different in character from the music before and after, and provided a refreshing change of pace. It was paired with “Qui Creavit Celum,” a 15th-century “carol-like lullaby hymn.”
We had already seen many different singing formations, but we were surprised by what happened next. The whole group moved to the chapel at the far end of the cathedral, maybe two hundred feet away from us. There they assembled in a circle and began singing “O Magnum Mysterium” by contemporary American composer, Richard Burchard. And it was magnificent. The distance created a new set of reverberations, and with the singers so far removed, one could no longer perceive individual voices. It felt like eavesdropping on vespers at the best convent in Europe. I was conscious of modern harmonies, but it was all very accessible — no, more than that: it was serenely beautiful to the point of being hypnotic.
The next selection was “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite” by 12th-century Hildegard Von Bingern. For this piece most of the singers remained in the chapel, but 3 came back to position themselves around the audience: one each in the left and right aisles, and the third behind most of us in the center aisle. A distinctive element of this performance was the continuous drone of a harmonium (a type of organ powered by a bellows). I didn’t get a close look at it, but we could see Paulson pumping while some of the singers kept it steady. Against this sound, which was almost reminiscent of a bagpipe, were the pure tones of the singers. The three surrounding us shared extensive solos that collectively might have lasted for 8 minutes. Then the rest of the ensemble came in, and by the time this part of the program concluded, we in the audience had been treated to a remarkable juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern. I found myself thinking that this was all more of an experience than a concert.
The first half of this “experience” ended with a performance of “Ave, dulcissima Maria” by contemporary Italian composer, Fabio Fresi, and featuring an extended solo by Anne-Marie Endres. At its conclusion, the audience, recognizing what an extraordinary event they were witnessing, provided unusually extended applause, and the women withdrew to the back of the church for the intermission.
Before the second half of the program began, we were addressed by Vox Musica Board member Jay Stebley, who spoke enthusiastically about the musicians and announced a new fundraising campaign. Most telling for me was this point that he made: “Someone who comes and sings her heart out is giving a gift that is priceless.”
The second half of the concert consisted of "selections of German Renaissance and modern carols." First among these was “Christum wir sollen Loben schon," described in the program as an anonymous 16th-century carol. It was accompanied by many of the singers ringing hand chimes, as they did in several of the subsequent pieces. A fragment of this piece was also used (with the hand chimes) to provide continuous music while the ensemble moved from one formation to another (keeping the audience from applauding at the wrong times).
The next two selections were "Puer Nobis (a 15th-century carol) and "Hush, Hush, Lie Still and Slumber" (a contemporary work by Bruce Sled). The latter featured three fine solo voices with an exquisite blend. (You would be amazed at how many times I wrote "exquisite" in my notes.)
"Love Came Down at Christmas," based on a traditional Irish melody with words by Christina Rossetti (1885) was given a contemporary arrangement by Daniel Paulson. It featured more sublime harmonies and creative polyphony, and I marveled at all the pure tones echoing in the cathedral.
For nearly every piece in this second half of the concert, the singers moved to new positions or grouped themselves into different ensembles. "In Dulci Jubilo" (15th-century carol) was performed by a sextet that provided a wonderful interplay of voices, occasionally coming together for a unison so perfect that I couldn't distinguish the individual voices.
As I recall, it was a quartet that gave us the "Cradle Song," a contemporary piece by Hanns-Christoph Schuster. Then the whole ensemble performed "O Tannenbaum," the 15th-century carol that was first sung in English, then in German. I noticed that this arrangement used what were, for me, traditional harmonies. But that got me wondering how many subtleties I had missed in this evening's performance and wishing I could hear it all again to discover and appreciate those subtleties.
We had apparently come to the end of the concert, and so the audience, repressed for far too long, rose for a standing ovation that went on long enough to bring smiles from all the singers, including those who had kept a serious demeanor throughout the concert.
Our enthusiasm was rewarded with an encore. It was an arrangement of "Silent Night" by Paulson. The first verse was sung in German with a more or less traditional sound. I was too transported to take notes on exactly how the performance developed, but I believe the next verse was performed by a quartet, plus a single voice holding a single note. Inventive chords were introduced, and shortly the whole ensemble was singing. In all, I think they performed as many as six verses, including at least one that I don't recall having heard before. No matter, the sound was sweet enough to bring tears to your eyes.
I joined the rest of the audience in giving these 12 women and their director another long round of applause, and I left the cathedral with a sense of awe for the demonstration of choral artistry that I had witnessed.