It is a great joy to hear an outstanding chorus such as the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham, led by world-class conductor Rodney Wynkoop. Their concert in Duke Chapel on Sunday, June 12, once again confirmed the accolades that have come their way consistently ever since their formation in 1996. In early February of this year, the VAE performed to a standing ovation at the prestigious National American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) convention in Los Angeles, placing them in the elite company of choruses like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the St. Olaf Choir, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

In Duke Chapel, the VAE was in peak form. Some of the things I heard were – a tenor line that shone through, subtly, just enough to make its contribution apparent and then meld back into the total tapestry; an alto line that set up a beautiful appoggiatura and then resolved from dissonance into sweet harmony; basses that provided a solid, unwavering foundation, and sopranos whose tones ascended into the heights of Duke Chapel and set up vibrations that did not flutter but caused the heart to do so. I heard controlled rises and falls in the music that gave meaning to the texts and went beyond the texts…. Even though the conductor discourages applause until the end of each half of his concerts, almost every piece the VAE sang produced sighs of appreciation and wonderment in the audience.

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians, and this was a sort of St. Cecilia’s Day concert in June, although November 22 is her feast day. The program opened with “Jubilate Deo,” by Giovanni Gabrieli, to remind us we were in Duke Chapel where such a work resounds so effectively that one feels the music, composed for St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, is perfectly at home. Next, the women of the chorus sang an Ave Maria setting by David MacIntyre in which phrases of the prayer are repeated rapidly in an overlapping manner, producing a chime-like effect. It reminded me of windchimes on a day when a gentle breeze is blowing.

Two works in the unique and special musical language of Francis Poulenc were next; the first was another Marian prayer, “Salve Regina,” and the second, one of the set of Four Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi, was “Seigneur, je vous en prie,” wherein the saint prays to be absorbed by the power of God’s love. Both were filled with the special passion of prayer but the second, sung by the men alone, produced a sound of haunting beauty and devotion.

John Tavener’s “Funeral Ikos” provided a stark and ethereal contrast. It consists of six chanted verses from the Greek funeral sentences for the burial of priests, translated by Isabel Hapgood. Each verse begins in unison and gradually builds from a simple harmonic structure to a haunting “Alleluia.” The verses mention some of the sad and painful realities of death, and each ends with an invitation to sing Alleluia. It was a stunning and sonorous experience, and by the third or fourth Alleluia, you felt like joining in.

With William Harris’ beautiful hymn-like anthem, “Bring us, O Lord God (into the house and gate of heaven… no noise nor silence, but one equal music),” we were brought more directly toward St. Cecilia, and then renaissance composer Peter Philips’ “Cantantibus organis,” a responsory for the Feast of St. Cecilia, introduced the lady herself. The first half of the concert closed with Hymn to St. Cecilia, Benjamin Britten’s intricate and masterful setting of text by W.H. Auden. This was truly virtuosic singing, matching the challenges of Britten’s score, which weaves melodies and harmonies into a fabric of exquisite aural colors and sonorous textures.

The second half just got better, beginning with Debussy’s delightful part song “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder,” the text of which is from the 15th-century poet Charles D Orléans. Eric Whitacre, one of the hottest composers of contemporary choral music, called once again upon the marvelous poetry of Octavio Paz (also used in “Water Night” and “Cloudburst”) for “A boy and a girl.” This is extraordinarily visceral music that, with the poetry of Paz, gets inside your skin and melts the hard corners of your spirit. An wonderful example of the power of this music comes on the word “waves” in the first verse, where a one chord change conveys the swelling and cresting of a sea of emotion. The work was just too short.

C.V. Stanford’s always charming “The blue bird” was followed by two enchanting part songs by Brahms. “Der Falke” (“The Falcon”) and “Abendständchen” (“Evening Serenade”) were sung with the precision and harmonic passion that makes Brahms’ choral music so seductive and rewarding.

And then the concert highlight and conclusion, with an added string ensemble and harp, was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music (1938), composed for the jubilee concert that marked Sir Henry J. Wood’s fiftieth anniversary as a professional conductor. Sergei Rachmaninov, who performed his Second Concerto in the first half of the concert, and who was sitting in a box with Lady Wood and the great conductor Felix Weingartner, was observed to have had his eyes filled with tears during the performance of Vaughan Williams’ rapturous music. Based on passages from Act V of The Merchant of Venice, it was written for 16 highly-regarded professional soloists, each one having a specific and specially-composed solo passage. The VAE soloists deigned the bravura one often hears from professional soloists in this piece, instead singing liltingly and thus enhancing the sweet harmony the composer surely intended. Even though the wimpy fanfare before the line “Come ho! and wake Diana with a hymn” was a small disappointment, the soaring beauty, the rich harmonic progressions, and the pure magic of the piece were poignantly moving.

For an encore, Wynkoop chose yet another treasure that Hinshaw Publishing keeps coming up with. The words are from an 85-year-old horseman, interviewed in Akenfield, England. His simple but eloquent recollections of his life as a laborer, ending with the line “I have had pleasure enough, I have had singing” were set to music by Stephen Sametz. It was an exquisite benediction for a wonderful program.