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Wilmington is a place of many possibilities, certainly when it comes to the cultural sphere. This past weekend introduced the Port City to yet another high-quality artistic organization joining the enviable musical scene: Wilmington Voices. The group's website describes them as: "New Hanover County's premiere professional vocal ensemble." The concert program introduced them still more impressively as the only such ensemble in the region. Formed just last year, the group gave a trio of concerts this past weekend at three locales around town. The last well-attended event was at the lively Cameron Art Museum which is something of a cultural center on its own.
The founder and artistic director of the group is the powerhouse Angela Burns. She spoke at various points in the program, bringing pizzazz and a bit of humor to the group's presence. She is obviously dedicated to the mission of presenting fine choral music to this region, with the sense of community that can be created. It is also her intent, she mentioned, to make Wilmington Voices performances free to the public whenever possible. Two of the three concerts this weekend were indeed free to the public. In that sense too, the presence of the group augurs to be a real contribution to Wilmington and its wider area.
The performance was an auspicious introduction. It began brightly, with a proclamation: "A Choral Fanfare," an a cappella piece by the well-known choral composer John Rutter. Heralded with the words "blow the trumpets," it was, as one would expect, exultant. The piece presented Wilmington Voices as a well-blended group with a projecting sound that could generate energy and excitement.
"Alleluia" by Randall Thompson came next. This a capella piece featured what turned out to be the characteristic sound of the group, at least at this point in its artistic life: soft and thoughtful. With its rich sound, the piece showcased what this fine choir can do. I wished for more variety in the softer first part of the piece, with fuller shaping of the lines, even a reverent hush, before it rose to become a celebration. Either way, I could bask in the sheer tone itself, and the climax was very bright.
"The Rune of Hospitality" followed, by Alf Houkom. This piece too was soft and soothing. It had more dissonance than the previous pieces, which gave presence to the choir's much-appreciated clarity of pitch. Enunciation was also very clear. The individual moving lines were well-highlighted. This piece was accompanied on guitar by Dr. Justin Hoke, an active soloist and faculty member of the UNCW music department. He played dynamically, with rhythmic clarity, and his tone contrasted well with the smooth sound of the voices.
By this time, I was noticing that entrances and cut-offs were not necessarily fully precise. This may come in part from an attractive quality of the group: it is led not by a conductor as such, but by Burns from the alto section. This enhances the communal character that she spoke of in her remarks. From the technical standpoint, it may make it harder to achieve full precision. Another favorable quality of the group may also contribute: the treble and basso singers were not all together, but were spread among one another. That is excellent for blending of the voices, but may not fully promote precision. That said, these factors could also be a matter of the group's evolution, as over time they become fully honed to this manner of performance.
"Sure On This Shining Night" followed, as set by Morten Lauridsen. It is hard to avoid comparison with the iconic Samuel Barber music, but this piece has a different identity. The choral context allowed for enhancement of the words through repetition. The line "I weep for wonder" was a lovely moment.
Stephen Paulus was the composer of the next piece, "The Road Home." The seventh chords in this meditative poem were finely in tune. The tenor soloist, Elijah Cole, soared over the harmony in the brightest parts.
The very-popular Eric Whitacre was the composer of "Water Night," which followed. This had the composer's characteristically full harmonies, with the voice parts divided into multiple separate lines, as Burns pointed out. There was a very smooth, fine change to the lower registers, and a less smooth shift in the upper voices later. The end featured beautiful movement of the parts and finely nuanced harmonies.
The last piece before intermission was "Unclouded Day," arranged by Shawn Kirchner. This swinging gospel-style number needed sharper rhythm. It's an infectious tune which here was relatively sober. Perhaps a bit faster tempo would have spiced it up, along with more emphasis on the accents. The ringing ending brought the half to a fine conclusion.
People left for the intermission in an upbeat mood. A suggestion here to the Cameron Museum, which was otherwise a fine host: to allow concertgoers to visit the art exhibition for the 15 minutes of the intermission. On Sunday, the guard shooed concert attendees out because they hadn't paid museum admission.
Back in the attractive, well-filled performance space, the shorter second half brought more of the group's sonorous tone. I especially appreciated "Ballade to the Moon" by Daniel Elder. There were gentle lines, sensitively shaped. The full harmonies were expressive, something the group excels in. This led, also, to a good peak.
In a presumably well-planned symmetry, the ending piece, "Sweet Rivers," was also arranged by Shawn Kirchner. It's a gently-flowing melody with a fair amount of momentum. The group's accompanist, Sara Bryant, contributed fluent support. In all of the several pieces in which she participated, she was rhythmically precise and balanced well with the ensemble. With this, the choir brought the program to an attractive conclusion.
Almost…the very appreciative audience won an encore: "Praise the Lord" by Adolphus Hailstork. This returned to the triumphal mood of the opening piece, and left listeners to celebrate wonderful music, a dynamic new group, and the spirit of the happy occasion.
In this excellent event, the program could overall have benefitted from more variety. Much of the music was in a meditative vein. All of it was from the twentieth century in a more-or-less tonal language. I could easily see Renaissance pieces, for example, enriching the mix, and faster tunes heightening the energy.
As it stands, Wilmington was treated to a new, professional group whose high level of artistry and dedication is promising to enhance our musical lives in the years to come. Welcome to our cultural lives, Wilmington Voices!