The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Vocal Art Ensemble
Play: The Clever • The Creative • The Ingenious - June 4, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
While waiting in the Davis United Methodist Church for this performance to begin, my main thought was “This is going to be fun!” Part of that impression came from the program, which was set up like a game board, with the songs as points on the path between “Start” and “Finish.” And like a game board, there were intriguing special squares for something besides a song. To top it off, there were bits of colorful clip art, evocative of games and other kinds of fun. See for yourself by clicking here to open the program in a new window.
Before I get into the many features of this thoughtfully constructed concert, let’s get something out of the way first: the singing throughout this program was consistently excellent — most of it a cappella, all from memory, and in a variety of languages — or in one case, no real language at all. I have come to expect the highest degree of vocal excellence from the Vocal Art Ensemble, but there is so much more to their performances. First, it feels like the singers are constantly acting: their faces and gestures are always telling the story of the song, and especially in this performance, there seemed to be an abundance of props to reinforce that story. Perhaps even more significantly, in so many numbers they are interacting with each other as they sing. To me, this interaction brings a special life to a piece of music, another emotional dimension that resonates with an audience.
The spirit of this event — and it was far more than a concert — was established at the start. Eight singers entered from the central aisle of the church. They performed “Arroz con Leche,” which I believe translates as “rice pudding.” It was by 20th century composer Carlos Guastavino and was a delicate, happy song with a Spanish flair. What delighted the audience, though, was the entrance from opposite sides of the “stage” by two performers with stick puppets, a Spanish gentleman and a lady. They seemed to tease the singers on their way to meeting each other at center stage. They got closer and closer until, at the conclusion of the song, they kissed — and a little fan popped up from the woman’s tiny hand to cover their faces. It was utterly charming.
The next 7 of 8 songs had something in common in that they were from much earlier periods: 13th to 16th centuries. What they didn’t have in common was their language — Latin, French, Middle English and English. Clearly, there were a variety of ethnicities represented in this group of songs, each of which seemed to come in rapid succession. They were performed with different ensembles, from a duet to the full group, always a cappella, and with different — sometimes fascinating — choreography. The presentation of these early songs, with all the activity that accompanied them, got me thinking that the point of it all, within the context of the title of the program, “Play,” was to take the audience back to centuries-old pastimes that served as satisfying entertainment in a simpler era.
While play was incorporated in some way into just about each song, there were four “games” inserted in the flow of the songs. The first came after the first piece, and it demonstrated, with pantomime and props, the idea of a child imitating a parent. The second of the games came toward the middle of this early music set. To the accompaniment of recorder, banjo and bodhran, six dancers took hold of the end of a length of cloth, each of the three cloths a different color. Then almost like a maypole dance, they moved to different positions, intertwining the cloths into a complex pattern. I could see what was coming. They continued their movements — in reverse — until they had untangled their cloths, concluding by wrapping a couple of the singers in them, as if it were a 3-piece shawl.
I'll confess that I struggled to understand what was going on at various points in the concert. Afterwards I wrote to Director, Tracia Barbieri, with some of my questions. Her response put me at ease about some of my struggles: “We are playing around, and our audiences can skim the surface or delve deeper. I do this every program and, though I can understand a certain level of frustration at ‘not catching everything,’ it's intended as a sign of respect I show for the intelligence of our audience in that I don't spoon feed them, and that I want to give them as much complexity and depth as I can, even with a "playful" theme.”
Indeed, creativity and innovation are hallmarks of each Vocal Art Ensemble production. Every concert is absolutely unique, and even within a concert like this one, each song has a distinctive, thoughtful setting. For example, in “When Lo, By Break of Morning,” the singers in a given voice part emphasized their entrance by stretching out their hand and letting it fall as they sang the rest of the vocal line. It made the structure of the canon-like song visual — and, I dare say, made the piece more interesting to the audience.
In “Ma fin est mon commencement” (“My end is my beginning”), the singers began in an open, matrix formation. Then with small groups moving a step at a time, they worked their way into two columns before returning, step-by-step, to their original formation. In this way, they symbolically demonstrated the structure of the music, illustrating the significance of its title. Watching all this movement, I almost lost track of the beautiful, accurate, delicate singing and tight harmony with which each piece was performed.
Toward the end of these 13th to 16th century songs, there was another “time out for play” interlude. A speaker said “What fun is play without an opponent?” With that, the full ensemble separated into two groups, each with their own colored banner. From the opposing sides, two “champions” emerged and engaged in a slow-motion, physical fight, their partisans reacting to the ups and downs of their champion. For humorous emphasis, a drum was struck as each blow landed.
The spirit of conflict was revived after the conclusion of those 8 pieces of early music. “Spirituals Medley” (a new arrangement by Sacramento resident Jacqui Hairston and premiered in this concert series) began with 5 sopranos singing the African-American spiritual, "Glory, Glory Halleluiah." Presently 6 altos brazenly started singing a different spiritual, "Do Lord" — while the sopranos were still singing theirs. I noticed that each group of women was represented by a sign with the clef indicative of their voice part (G-clef for sopranos, C-clef for altos). Before long, the men challenged the women by raising the sign of the F-clef — and they started singing a different spiritual, "Woke Up This Morning." With each voice part singing a different melody simultaneously, it felt like chaos — but somehow musical chaos. Then as if there weren’t enough confusion, two performers started playing "This Little Light of Mine" on trumpets as the antagonism among the singing groups continued. Presently though, there was a pause, and everyone resumed singing happily together in harmony. And with the trumpets continuing to play, this quodlibet (i.e. simultaneous performance of several melodies) felt like a Dixieland Jazz celebration.
Time for more play. Three puppeteers acted out a story on a two-foot diameter, rear-projected shadow theater to the accompaniment of banjo, recorder and bodhran. I didn’t get the point of the story being portrayed, but it sure was an unusual break in the flow of the program.
Another premiere, this one a composition by former VAE member Laura Sandage, was next on the program. Called “Make Your Art,” it was performed by nine singers, each with a prop that suggested a different form of artistic endeavor: poetry, painting, fashion design, knitting, carpentry, etc. The point of the piece was the encouragement of creativity, and I believe I caught the line “Make your art; no one else can.” At its conclusion, Sandage, who was in the audience, took a bow as the audience expressed their appreciation.
Throughout most of the concert, there was no (apparent) direction of the small ensembles. Director Tracia Barbieri conducted occasionally, especially the full-chorus pieces, and it was during the next piece, “Kaval Sviri,” that I got a good chance to observe her in action. She was full of energy, mouthing the words, giving precise entrances and cutoffs, and modeling the spirit of the piece. As a result of all those efforts, I have to believe that natives of Bulgaria (the source of this work) would view this performance as authentic in every way. I should add that I like to observe directors, especially those who are particularly animated. But Barbieri is in a class by herself. No director I’ve seen is more expressive. She doesn’t just wave her hands and arms: she dances, she acts, and it seems to me that her facial expressions are almost mesmeric. She is as much a performer as those she’s conducting. And I’m not sure which is more inviting to watch: the choreography and demeanor of the singers or Barbieri’s directing.
After the men of the chorus gave us an appropriately manly performance of “Vive L’Amour,” we got our third premiere. “Who Has Seen the Wind” began with a duet of two women, while the other singers, in small single-sex groups, made the sound of wind. Eventually the whole ensemble was singing what seemed to me to be a moody, almost eerie composition. There was more choreography until all the singers exited, leaving the original duet to finish the song. Composer Sarah Majorins was in the audience and along with the performers, acknowledged the applause of those around her.
It’s rare these days to hear a choral concert without a composition by Ola Gjeilo, and for their penultimate offering, the Vocal Art Ensemble performed his setting of “Ubi Caritas.” Of course, it made for good listening, but the most interesting feature of the presentation was the front line of women who signed the lyrics, translating the Latin into American Sign Language.
The “final” selection on the program was “El Hambo,” and Barbieri introduced it by saying that it had only one real word in it. Though the composer is Finnish, the nonsensical lyrics sounded to us in the audience like Swedish, and the whole thing was as funny as the Swedish Chef feature of The Muppet Show. It was a raucous piece, with lots of body language, slaps and stomps and props, including Muppets and the Swedish Chef himself. We in the audience were totally delighted and rose to our feet as we applauded.
The printed program wasn’t coy, and announced an encore. It was another spiritual, Jester Hairston’s “Hold On,” and it was performed with all the art — and fun — that had characterized the whole program: expressive singing, props, and inventive choreography. “The Clever, The Creative, The Ingenious” was what we were promised for this concert, and that’s exactly what it delivered — along with a lot of excellent choral singing.