Every now and then there is a performance so spectacular that you are glued to your seat, and when it’s over you feel as if it just got started. Last weekend I was privileged to witness two such performances on the same stage. I can’t say that I have been a follower of a cappella vocal music, but about 20 years ago I was given a cassette tape of music performed by the Bulgarian National Women’s Choir and Chorus that completely floored me and instantly became the yardstick by which I measure any kind of vocal performance. I’ll return to this in a minute. But first….

On Saturday January, 28, I attended a premier performance of a group called “Avante.” It was presented by the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Garrett Road in Durham in a beautiful and acoustically perfect auditorium. The opening performance was “Lucky 13,” an all female a cappella vocal group from Chapel Hill High School. I will begin by saying that they are a potential feature act. Their vocal and rhythmic precision, intonation, expression, vocalese, stage presence, energy and focus, were very good. They presented themselves as would any group of seasoned performers, which made for an entertaining show. When they finished, the hall was all abuzz with compliments for the young ladies. As the lights flickered, I had to remind myself that I was there to review Avante, and returned to my seat wondering what to expect.

I had purposely avoided listening to any of their works beforehand so I wouldn’t approach the experience with any preconceived notions. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to discover that they are a local group from the Triangle. From the moment they took the stage at 8:30 p.m., they did just that. Like the old hoofers of Vaudeville used to say, “When you go on stage, you have to take ownership of it. You have to make it yours.” From the opening song, “Star of the County Down,” arranged by Ben Parry, I knew I was in for one of those spectacular rides you often hope to experience, but rarely do, in a great many performances. They were in control!

Even as I was attempting to take notes on particularly impressive technical feats, I was saying to myself, “I can’t dissect this performance in some intellectually distant, objective way. The experience is too compelling.” The opening song of their second set, “Baba Yetu,” began as they sang from separate positions around the theater, walking down the aisles to complete the song together on stage. What a display of concentration and control!

I could tell you that the repertoire was challenging both vocally and harmonically, that the interweaving of the timbre, range, and pitch of their instruments gave each selection its own personality, and that their stage blocking, costume, and theatrical interplay was superb. I could tell you that even though Kevin Badanes, the group’s founder and leader, credited Eric Whitacre as one of the great a cappella composers, Badanes’s overall direction and his arrangements, of which Avante performed five, are of equal caliber. I could tell you that the vocal quality and range of all eight musicians was extraordinary. And I could go on.

The only way to convey the impact of the extraordinary vocal gymnastics, amazing intonation, and overall excellence of this group is to recommend that you take a quick listen to my personal yardstick, the Bulgarian National Women’s Choir and Chorus. I think that, after their first world tour, Avante will belong in the conversation with this type of world-class elite. I can say, with all confidence that you don’t want to miss their next performance!