The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Lux Aeterna - December 11, 2017
by Stephanie Vollrath
(This review sponsored by Alta Gray.)
The concert started with candle-lit chanting. At Beatnik Studios, the performance space is so stark and industrial it seems almost ageless, which played well with this night’s repertoire. The hardscape of the walls and floors gave a lively bounce and echo to the music. The opening solo Gregorian chant set the mood for the whole concert: darkness, soaring echoes of ancient music, candles drawing us to light. This was music to actually feel.
Daniel Paulson, music director, did an outstanding job programming this concert. He found a way to blend light and darkness, time and timelessness into one musical event. This was not a concert people would walk out of humming these tunes. Instead, this was music to dwell on where it took us; to wonder about time and life.
The first few sets of music were filled with chants, carols, and hymns. The structure of each ranged from solo to full choir. Singers flowed into new positions — sometimes accompanied by the organ and sometimes not; all in dark with minimal candlelight. Each piece was wonderful standing on its own. Together, the pieces, flowing into each other, were a sinuous delight of music.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
“Ode to the Sun” by Derek Sup, lyricist Scott Mehner, was a collaboration of music, art, and word. This whole concert was about time and music’s place in it. We heard medieval carols and historical hymns, including fifth-century Gregorian chant, which is some of humanity’s oldest published music. Now, what do you imagine even more ancient music would sound like? Say, music as old as our sun; what do you think? And here comes the surprise. Derek Sup imagined this most ancient music as other-worldly; beyond the future. A lighted globe produced visual art with changing pictures that brought thoughts of an exploding, roiling birth of our sun. Scott Mehner’s words were sharp and thought-provoking. A sample: “For guidance through dark treacherous time, sole beacon the wayward soul of man: my heart by your example learns the lessons of true love, and burns in harmony with th’ stars in heaven’s span.” Bring this together with voice and organ and you have something truly memorable. This piece, no doubt, has a long future ahead of it. The voices sang on a sliding scale using every note possible, even notes not possible on a traditional musical instrument. The organ was earth-bound by its diatonic scale. This created microtones of awesome musical tension and friction, counterbalanced with delicious harmonies. The voices pulsed, the organ pulsed, the lighted globe pulsed. This excellent piece brought all the concert’s programming together; ancient or futuristic, surrounded by light and shadows.
Guest artist, Derek Sup, brought life to the organ. Throughout the concert, the organ did not accompany the choir. Rather it was its own voice singing with the choir. Sup played flawlessly. The organ was set perpendicular to the audience, so we had a clear view of his talent. There were times he played just one note echoing a solo voice’s pure note. Then there were pieces with handfuls of notes using the whole keyboard masterfully. His flying feet were accurate and amazing to watch. Sup was assisted by an excellent page turner, which is a treasure. Where did this organ come from? It was a nice instrument with just the right voice for this space.
The first half of the program ended with “Bright Mass with Canons” by Nico Muhly. This is a modern piece with echoes of ancient music and text. The music was thick with texture. In Vox Musica, every voice is a soloist and in tonight’s program, every soloist was strong and beautiful. This piece showcased each voice like a thread and then wove them together.
“Ave Maris Stella” by Cecilia McDowall, is a post-9/11 piece, and it came with expected gentle harmonies and a tender comforting melody. The male voices again joined the female voices. Here, and in other places, the men were an excellent addition. The pure, soaring soprano voices were well accented by the men’s lower range, and the men’s voices completed the tapestry in this piece. The faultless dynamics were evident as the piece started with a strong full choral sound and ended like a benediction.
“Silent Night” closed the concert like a beautiful floating wave. This arrangement by Daniel Paulson was performed flawlessly. The choir was arranged around the darkened room to surround the audience with this gentle, peaceful music. “Silent Night,” while a simple melodic carol, is full of diction traps. The first word — “silent” — starts with a hissing “s” and ends with a “t.” Vox’s expertise in diction, enunciation, and clarity was confirmed in this piece. Every hard consonant was perfection. The soft “c” in the word “peace” was delivered as one pure voice. This is a choir that expects excellence and delivers it. I wanted the concert to end there and carry the sound of that ethereal carol out with me. I wanted to tiptoe out into the silent night myself. This was the most perfect rendition of “Silent Night” that I could imagine.
Lengthy announcements followed this carol and broke the spiritual moment for me. Thankfully, a full choir encore was performed that restored the musical magic of the evening. Thank you, Vox Musica, and all of your musical family, for working so hard to create this outstanding, exciting music. Seriously, this music was stunningly beautiful.