The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Rooted: How Culture Chapes the Choral Art - June 10, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
I attended the first performance of the latest 3-concert series by The Vocal Art Ensemble (VAE) at Sacramento's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Every VAE program is carefully structured to develop a theme, and this time the theme was clearly described by the title, "Rooted: How Culture Shapes the Choral Art." But if each song is thoughtfully selected to develop the theme, there’s an implicit challenge to figure out why a piece was selected and sequenced the way it was. We in the audience got some initial help from the program, which gave titles to the 6 sections of the concert: Faith, Love, Dreams, Reflection, Death, and Life. More help was to come, as I'll get to presently.
Click here to open the program in a new window.
After a welcome by a member of the chorus, the performance began with a piece apparently outside of the 6 categories, "Who Shall Have My Lady Fair?" a 19th-century madrigal-like song. Singers entered the "stage" area, wordlessly communicating with each other until they came together in a mixed formation. When the singing began, it was a lilting, lively piece, and its spirit was reflected in the way the singers interacted with each other. I should add that such interactions are present in so many of the pieces performed by this group: looking at one another, sometimes touching, as if the song were itself a conversation. It's a presentation style that I love to see, and I believe it enhances every performance. With greater animation comes more sensitive singing and more communication with the audience.
Each of the 6 sections of the concert was preceded by an introduction by one of the chorus members in a brief statement that they had memorized. It was a carefully crafted explanation of each piece in the set, giving insight into the background of the music and how it developed the theme. These were interesting and occasionally humorous, but I’m afraid that by the time the second piece in the set was performed, I had forgotten what was said about its significance — and that of the following pieces. Considering all the thought (by chorus member, Laura Sandage) that had gone into these introductions, it would have been so helpful to have had the text written in the program. That would have been a departure from precedent, though, because VAE programs are one-page, colorful works of art, presenting a minimum of text.
Here’s another general comment about this remarkable concert. Almost every VAE performance has some unique non-choral element. Past concerts have featured dancers or poetry or instrumentalists of different kinds. The spice in this concert was provided by René Jenkins, a performance artist who accented many songs with flutes, recorders, and unusual percussion instruments, sometimes played by chorus members. That was the case in the first song, Byrd’s “Kyrie,” which began with the slow entrance of Jenkins playing a type of flute, while chorus member Ashlyn Barbieri accompanied him, carrying a Tibetan “singing” bowl from which she made a continuous sound by tracing a wooden striker around its lip. These sounds created a meditative introduction for Byrd’s Renaissance music, which was performed by a quintet of 3 women and 2 men.
VAE concerts are so lush in variety and detail that it would take far more words than you might be willing to read to capture the richness of what I saw and heard. Let me point out, though, that nearly every selection in this program had a different complement of singers, most without Director Tracia Barbieri out front. A few songs were performed by the full chorus, but most featured a smaller ensemble, and it seemed that each formation was different. I have to add that the use of different small ensembles was a mercy to the singers because the entire program was performed from memory.
It would be one thing to memorize English lyrics, but take a look at the attached program: I count 10 different languages with music from 14 different countries — a trip around the world. Obviously, the programming of this (and other) VAE concerts involves extensive research, and it’s clear that most of the music you will hear at a VAE concert is music (or an arrangement) you have never heard before — and may never hear again.
That research, of course, is the work of Tracia Barbieri. Beyond that, she’s the spirit of each song, whether visible or not, devoting what must be an enormous amount of time to the interpretation and staging of each piece. But part of the pleasure of a VAE concert is watching her crisp, expressive directing, and I was a tiny bit disappointed to see her doing less directing than she has in previous concerts. With great animation and an extraordinary repertoire of gestures and facial expressions, she is just fascinating to watch.
I mentioned earlier about the creative contribution of percussionist/flautist René Jenkins. He did not set up every song, but for the many that he did, he demonstrated a variety of flutes, sometimes played in unexpected ways. But the variety of percussion instruments was simply fascinating. During the course of the concert I saw finger cymbals, a ratchet, dried branches ("shakapas"), "wind wands," rattles, a didgeridoo — and a few instruments I can’t even describe, let alone name. None of this did I find distracting or inappropriate: rather, the percussion or woodwind sounds enriched what I saw and heard. Each selection went beyond being a song to a musical vignette.
Let me elaborate on that. VAE members don’t just sing — they perform. Singing is emotion set to music, and so often you could plainly see the emotion in the facial expressions and gestures of each singer. And speaking of emotion, of the many moving moments in this concert, I have to comment on the two pieces by Canadian composer Eleanor Daley: “For the Fallen” and “In Remembrance.” The former began with a trumpet (played by 14-year-old chorus member, Kian Barbieri), who proceeded slowly from the back of the Cathedral eventually joining the singers, who performed as three ensembles. Interestingly, when one ensemble was singing, the other two faced away from the audience. Most of the lyrics escaped me, but the emotion did not. And I dare say that was true for the rest of the audience, including the one person behind me to let out an involuntary “Whew!” as the piece concluded. The mood persisted with “In Remembrance,” which was performed with precision and exquisite sensitivity, concluding with all the singers taking each other’s hands. It was all very moving. (There is a beautifully produced YouTube video of VAE performing “For the Fallen.” Check it out at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdBcRkwZ5nY. And here’s an interesting footnote. Shortly after the conclusion of this concert, VAE departed on a tour of the Northeast US and Toronto, which was to include a working session with composer Eleanor Daley.)
Looking back on this concert, it felt like there was drama of some kind in every song, and often I could feel the progression of emotions. With most of this music in foreign languages, we in the audience didn’t understand the words being sung, but it sure looked like the singers did. Occasionally, a piece went beyond simple dramatic singing to creative staging. One example was the Japanese piece, “Hotaru Koi.” The cathedral went dark, and the delicate singing of the women was accompanied by 5 or 6 men using LED lights to imitate fireflies. The next piece, “Diu Diu Deng” — this one Taiwanese — was about a ride on a train. So the singers took positions as if in a train — pairs facing each other, with Barbieri as conductor at the front. As the piece started, all leaned toward the "back" of the train and swayed in unison as the train moved, eventually all lurching to a stop.
Among all the music I’ve never heard before in this concert, they reprised two of my favorites. The first was the most rousing version of “Loch Lomond” you’ve ever heard, this time including some cute staging involving the pairing of singers, and a clever happy ending for the one wallflower. My other favorite was the encore, Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “The Battle of Jericho.” But the Vocal Art Ensemble doesn’t just sing this piece: they stage it as a battle between men and women — and though never quite the same, it’s always exciting... and hilarious.
Despite all I’ve said, this didn’t strike me as a flashy concert; rather it was one that invited introspection. Maybe that’s the essence of “art.” You witness an event like this, and you have to conclude that there is more to “vocal art” than most people imagine. Indeed, a Vocal Art Ensemble concert is itself a multi-faceted work of art.