On Saturday evening, June 24, in the shimmering contemporary sanctuary of Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh, and on Sunday, June 25, in the Gothic splendor of Duke University Chapel, the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham celebrated its tenth anniversary with new friends and a growing cluster of avid enthusiasts. Singing at least one selection from each of their programs over the past ten years served as a celebratory reprise for those who have attended most of these concerts and as a splendid introduction for those who are new to this highly refined sound. Added features of the Duke Chapel performance included the world premiere of Love Song by Imant Raminsh, whose In the night we shall go in was also included. The extraordinary artistry of pianist David Heid, violinist Eric Pritchard, cellist Leonid Zilper, guitarist Randy Reed, the Trinity Ringers and others enhanced the star of the show – the singing.

Many of the members of the VAE are trained musicians in their own right – teachers, church, school and community chorus directors, soloists, etc. Others are “ordinary people” doing their jobs in the community, but sharing a deep love and commitment to the joy of singing. Part of that joy is learning new music under the winsome, knowledgeable and effective skill of a master conductor like Rodney Wynkoop. The piece chosen for the conclusion of the program sums up the VAE and Wynkoop beautifully. English horseman Fred Mitchel was 85 and ailing when he was interviewed in the village of Akenfield as part of a project to record a simple way of life that was vanishing already in the 1960s. This is what he remembered of his youth: “The singing. There was so much singing then, and this was my pleasure too. We all sang, the boys in the fields, oh, the chapels were full of singing, always singing. Here I lie. I have had pleasure enough; I have had singing.” These profound, simple and beautiful thoughts were set to music by Steven Sametz and published by Hinshaw Music. It was the last piece on the program and all the singers present who had sung with VAE over the past ten years (over 100 in all) joined in the singing. It was a tender and powerful melding of words and tones clearly from the heart of the chorus to the responsive hearts of the audience.

The opening selection really grabbed you. Jauchzet dem Herren (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands – Psalm 100) is by Heinrich Schütz, who was born one hundred years before J. S. Bach. It is a double choir motet written in the echo style that Schütz learned from Gabrieli, who developed it at St. Marks in Venice. The two choirs sing with such precision of rhythm and dynamic that one could sit with eyes closed and imagine an immense cathedral or even a Bavarian village nestled between two peaks of the Alps. The sounds rang like bells, faded away, bounced back, reverberated, overlapped and finally melted away as though ascending while the singers, the conductor, and the hearers all watched the clear stars overhead and acknowledged the gift.

Randall Thompson’s “Ye shall have a song” (from The Peaceable Kingdom) is a full-throated anthem of the same sentiment. It truly filled the chapel space in a glorious way. The Credo of Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus a cappella, an extremely challenging and difficult work, was done with such precision, balance and expression as to seem as simple as a Sunday anthem. John Tavener’s ethereal Song for Athene, remembered by many as the piece that was sung as Princess Diana’s casket was borne out of the cathedral, captures something elemental of the human spirit: the need to grieve and to say “Alleluia” at the same time.

There is also something very special about Grieg’s Ave maris stella, the Marian hymn of coastal dwellers since about the 9th century. Grieg’s gorgeous melody, captivating harmonies and well-formed music is a pleasure I never weary of. Next, contemporary Russian composer, Sergei Kalintsev’s N’e ryday m’en’e, Mat’i (Do not weep for me, Mother) and Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus from the first half of the 18th century took us to the Cross of sacrifice in a moving and compelling manner.

As much of the music was bewitching in its beauty and comforting in its warmth, the next set of pieces, each about war, were in turn disturbing, discomforting, then challenging and triumphant. Guitarist Randy Reed joined the VAE for a performance of Jeffrey Van’s setting of Walt Whitman’s Beat! beat! drums! The music is as angry and incensed as Whitman’s words describing the horrible realities of war. The performance was appropriately disturbing and unforgettable. Donald McCullough’s Is Not a Flower a Mystery? (text by Chaim Stern) is another one of those magical joinings of text and music that results in something more than the sum of two. The last line of the text hints at the depths of this piece: “Why cannot we help but turn to You, but why, why do we turn to You so late?” (This was the one piece on this program that is included on the VAE’s CD “My Spirit Sang All Day” released on the Arsis label in 2004.) John McCrae, the young solder who saw thousands die in Ypres in WW I, wrote “If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” The music by Paul A. Aitken breathes a special elegiac power into these words etched in the hearts of many Americans.

The first half of the program ended with the rousing, triumphant spiritual Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho in the exuberant arrangement by Moses Hogan.

Imagine if you will an octagonal building, two levels, floor and balcony, eight choirs each with five voices – soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. That is the setting for Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium (I have had hope in none other than thee, O God of Israel), also known as the 40-voice motet. Eight specially chosen singers joined the standard choir of 32 to make the total of 40 voices. Each of the 40 singers has his or her own part, different from the other 39. Wynkoop was as witty and charming a showman as he prepared the audience for this performance as I have ever seen him. He described the entrance of the eight choirs one by one as a prototype of the stadium wave as he had each choir raise their hands while they were arranged in a semicircle around the front of the chapel. At one point he galloped down the aisle so that all could get a glimpse of the complex score. Hearing of this piece was a rare treasure indeed and an awesome experience not to be forgotten.

Another memory the VAE has given us involves outstanding performances of Eric Whitacre’s stunning composition “Cloudburst,” a setting of poetry by Octavio Paz that contains this memorable phrase: “…we must sing till the song puts forth root, trunk, branches, birds, stars….” The historical roots of human voices joining in meaningful sound are lost in antiquity, but singing has always been associated with things like worship, love, comfort, and celebration – the branches, birds, and stars of the family tree that is the root stock from which we all come. Joining the VAE for an amazing performance were David Heid, piano, the Trinity Ringers (from Trinity United Methodist Church, Betsy Taylor, director), Leslie Webster and Stephen Coffman, percussion, speaker Gloria Cabada-Lehman, and soloists Patricia Donnelly Philipps, soprano, and D. Thomas Jaynes, baritone.

Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal “Darà la notte il sol” (from Tears of a lover at the tomb of the beloved) was a gem of polished perfection, the sound ideal for the ambience of the chapel and the performance, exquisite.

Imant Raminsh was born in Latvia and moved to Canada with his family when he was five. His education includes the ARCT diploma in violin from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, a B.Mus. from the University of Toronto, and studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum. His compositions of mostly orchestral and choral works have been performed throughout the world. His In the night we shall go in was first performed by the VAE in the 2000 concert. On this occasion, David Heid played the piano and Leonid Zilper the cello in this hauntingly beautiful setting of Pablo Neruda’s La Rama Robada (The Stolen Branch, trans. Donald D. Walsh). The music matches the wistful and mystical text with an unforgettable melody, lush seductive harmony and skilled weaving of the instruments and vocal parts into a rich vision of love.

Love Song, commissioned by the VAE for their tenth anniversary celebrations, draws on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in an English translation by Herter Norton. It begins with an intricate and complex violin solo, performed sensationally by Eric Pritchard. The text speaks: “everything that touches you and me takes us together as a bow’s stroke does, that out of two strings draws a single voice.” The music at first seems atonal and unsettled as the sopranos drift on one plane and the other voices, on another. The violin comments mystically and the chorus develops a consensus as the text suggests “out of two strings… a single voice.” The chorus resolves quietly – “O sweet song” – leaving the violin to sing to a stunning, shimmering conclusion. It is a remarkable piece. Raminsh is a composer of perceptive and expressive skill. We are grateful for what he has added to our experience of the art of singing.

The program closed with Sametz’s I have had singing as described above. A very appreciative audience listened raptly throughout the concert and applauded enthusiastically. For an encore, we were treated once more to the rousing Battle of Jericho. For ten years, Wynkoop has led the VAE, providing singing with unsurpassed vocal precision, articulate interpretation and the joy of enthusiasm for making music. Audiences have been thrilled, amazed, touched, comforted, challenged…. Indeed, we have had singing!