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Vocal Ensemble Media Review

My Spirit Sang All Day

June 22, 2004 - Durham, NC:

Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham, Rodney Wynkoop, director. ARSIS CD 145 (58:58). $15.95 + tax. Available from various local emporia (including Quail Ridge Books & Music (Raleigh), Barnes & Noble (New Hope Commons, Durham), & Borders Books & Music (Chapel Hill) or at http://www.arsisaudio.com/ [inactive 6/07].

The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham is comprised of experienced singers, several of whom are involved professionally with other area school, community and church choirs. This handpicked elite chorus was founded in 1996 by Duke Professor of Music and Choral Society of Durham conductor Rodney Wynkoop. From its first performance, this chamber choir's music making has declared itself of the highest caliber. From Josquin des Prez to Eric Whitacre, from Felix Mendelssohn to James MacMillan, to Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium (the famous 40-voice motet), and whether in Duke Chapel or St. Philip's Episcopal Church in downtown Durham - everything has been done with the precision, interpretative wisdom and wonderful warmth of sound one would expect of the Robert Shaw Chorale or the Tallis Scholars.

VAE's first commercial CD - My Spirit Sang All Day has been released by Arsis Audio of Boston and is distributed by Albany CDs. The CD includes contemporary music (i.e. music composed in my lifetime) by Finzi, Rutter, Locklair, Hanson, Clausen, Hovland, Fissinger, McCullough, Kodály, Barber, and Lekberg. Five of the composers represented are living and active.

The opening selection, which lends its title to the name of the CD, is Gerald Finzi's "My Spirit Sang All Day," a brief, lively and joyful piece that immediately lifts the spirits of the listener to a higher plain. The composer sets his opening text to an ascending scale and maintains an unbounded spirit throughout. The chorus demonstrates its excellent ensemble and diction in an equally winsome way.

Perhaps the most familiar work is Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," the composer's choral setting of the famous Adagio for Strings, which in turn is based on the slow movement of the 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11. The choral version is a supreme test of a choir's intonation - its ability to hold pitch without instrumental accompaniment. It is also a test of dynamic control - the gradual crescendo and equally gradual decrescendo are in this instance stunning. Balanced singing in extreme pianissimo passages as well as in full-voiced climaxes is crucial to the success of this work. The VAE passes all these tests with near perfect control, and when soloist Patricia Donnelly Philipps hits her high C perfectly, it is absolutely breathtaking.

John Rutter's "Musica Dei donum" ("Music, the Gift of God"), with Rebecca Troxler doing her usual superb job with the flute solo, will make you feel good all over. Wake Forest University Composer-in-Residence Dan Locklair's settings of Psalm 101 ("Create in me a Clean Heart") and "Pater noster" (The Lord's Prayer), with rich harmonies and lyrical melodic lines, bring wonderful depth to the meaning of prayer. In such transcendent music, this choir has established new standards that others groups may emulate. Some selections on this CD may be new to the listener. All are to be tasted, savored, and heard again and again.

It is to be hoped that this CD will receive the recognition it deserves and result in healthy sales. Perhaps it will be the first of many by this superb group of singers and their outstanding conductor. We need this kind of music and this kind of music making. It makes the trees reach higher, the birds sing sweeter, the stars shine brighter.

Note: For a review of the concert performances that led to part of this CD, see http://www.cvnc.org/Archives1101.html#vae.