Overheard after the Vox Nova concert at Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth on Friday night: “Only one dead guy!”
A good synopsis of an astonishingly good program of contemporary vocal music, much of it written in the 21st century. But not quite accurate. A work by the most famous deceased composer, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) the Sanctus from his Mass in G Major, was more “modern” sounding than many of the evening’s works. But composers Egil Hovland (1924-2013) and Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) were also represented.
The thought was relevant, however, because the composers selected by director Shannon M. Chase for the fifth anniversary concert showed how surprisingly good 21st-century vocal composition can be, and how varied in style and atmosphere. It has to be well and lovingly sung, in spite of the extreme difficulty of the scores, and that is where Vox Nova shines more brilliantly than most recordings of these works.
The concert represented the four elements of the Greek philosophers – air, fire, earth and water – with selections from previous years’ programs. It was long – about two hours including intermission – but without a dull moment.
Even the “Air” section, represented by settings of the mass and other religious texts, was full of surprises. Eric Whitacre’s light-filled “Lux Aurumque” (2001) fell between two startling impressions of the infernal: “Daemon Irrepit Callidus” (“The Demon Sneaks Expertly”) (1997) by György Orbán and “We beheld once again the stars,” (2003) by Z. Randall Stroope. The first was full of chant-like descriptions of earthly temptations, while the latter depicts Dante escaping from the inferno, pursued by beating leathern wings.
“Fire,” a compendium of love songs, began with David Dickau’s setting of Robert Burns’ “My love is like a red, red rose,” and ended with one of my favorites, Stroope’s 2001 setting of the Portuguese “Amor de mi Alma,” by Garcilaso de la Vega. It ends with one perfectly pure, long-held soprano note followed by the deepest of bass sound, a feat of the highest virtuosity made to seem simple and inevitable.
After intermission, “Earth” was represented by “Dawn Birds” (1999) by Iain (sic) Grandage, atmospheric and funny, with its realistic depiction of the cacophony of Australian bird calls. It was followed by two songs by Mongolian composers, “Mirage on the Gobi Desert” (1996) by Se Enkhbayar and “The Four Seas” (1995) by Dörven Dalai, the first a highly atmospheric depiction of an illusion, and the second a lively folk song, ending with a shout. One wonders where Chase finds these works, but the search has been worthwhile.
The most moving performance of the night was in the final “Water” section, a “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” (1997) by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a requiem mass in Latin for the victims of the Estonia shipwreck in 1994. The bass line in the beginning of “They that go down to the sea in ships” was worth the price of admission.
The final selection, “Oh Shenandoah,” in an arrangement by Alf Houkom, was that rarest of birds, a decoration of a melody that preserved the integrity of the original.
After long standing ovations, the two encores were particularly appropriate to the news from Charleston, South Carolina – superb renditions of the spirituals “He’s like a Rock,” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.”
WHAT: Vox Nova
WHERE: Sacred Heart Church, Yarmouth
REVIEWED: June 19