Women’s Voices Chorus has become an institution in Chapel Hill, known around the Triangle and beyond for championing the special sound of women’s voices in harmony, music composed by women and for women, and for discovering and resurrecting unique and seldom heard music from the past. Mary Lycan, Woman’s Voices’ Musical Director, did it again on Saturday, January 21, in a concert heard by the largest audience I have seen for their performances over the past several years. “Dancing Day: Music of the British Isles” featured selections by Gustav Holst and his daughter, Imogen, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, John Tavener, Bill Tamblyn, Mary Carmichael, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Clifton J. Nobles, Jr., and an anonymous 14th-century troubadour. Guest artists included Lesley Curtis, soprano, Laura S. Byrne, harp, Emi Hildebrandt and Leah Peroutka, violins, Petra Berényi, viola, Virginia Hudson, cello, and Robbie Link, string bass.

The gem of the evening was Choral Suite: The Dancers by Grace Williams, a Welshwoman who lived from 1906 to 1977. After musical training at home and demonstrating musical aptitude she attended the Royal College of Music and studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. What she learned from him shows, and it was apparent that the chorus and guest artists were enthusiastic and were themselves moved by this many-facetted gem. Lycan’s excellent program notes reveal that, “For her texts, Williams juxtaposed an extraordinary sequence of (five) poems, united only by their dance-related images, to portray the progress of remembered love and loss.” The piece is scored for three-part women’s choir, soprano soloist, strings, and harp. It was first performed in 1954 by the Penarth Ladies Choir with Joan Sutherland as the soprano soloist.

The first section, “Gather for the Festival,” with text by H. D. [Hilda Doolittle] (1886-1961), begins with the first violin setting a shimmering, rhapsodic theme. The soprano soloist quickly joins in interplay as the two soar in realms of otherworldliness, supported by the strings, while the harp adds sparkles of gold. Curtis’ voice, with just the right kind and amount of sweetness, was like the scent of honeysuckle in the cool of a summer evening.

The second section, “Tarantella” (text by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)), brought the chorus to the forefront in a complex textual and rhythmic remembering of a once-lively inn. The third section, “Roundelay” (text by Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770)), is a little darker, with some fascinating chromaticism involving the soloist and the chorus together. Part four – “Lose the Pain in the Snow,” with text by Mary Sarton (1912-1995) – deals with letting go of pain and getting on with life. It is a subtle harbinger of hope, richly harmonized and wondrously lyrical. The final poem, “To the Wild Hills,” by Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), rounds out the piece with a philosophy of acceptance and endurance: “The last leaf fallen, the last bird flown,/When the rose is freed from the heart of the night/And the world is wound on the bobbin of time,/The dance will be still, the dance will be still,/The dance will be still on the wild hills”

There was a touch of Serenade to Music in this choral suite. As performed, it had the warmth of the English country-side, the calm and peacefulness of sheep grazing in the pasture, the glow of happy memory, and the comfort of something familiar and safe surrounding us.

There were many other special moments in this concert. William Byrd’s “From Virgin’s Womb/Rejoice” was superbly performed, combining an elegant stanza and a rhythmically-lively poly-vocal refrain. John Tavener’s “Theótoke – God-bearer” is a one-word a cappella “big cloud of sound” piece, as it was aptly described in the program notes. Gustav Holst’s double chorus “Ave Maria” was not as tight as it might have been – the gorgeous dissonances could have be more boldly defined – but it was still a special pleasure to hear.

John Rutter’s setting of “Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day” was pure delight. Introduced by soprano soloist Virginia Byers Kraus, it was childlike in the very best sense, filled with unabashed charm and playful exuberance. Bill Tamblyn’s setting of the medieval chant “Jesu dulcis memoria” is a masterful setting with some shimmering harmonies that took my breath away.

We were treated to a preview of Isabella’s upcoming concert in February (find it in CVNC‘s calendar ). Lesley Curtis, Tamsin Simmill, and Linda Everhart sang “Adorna thalamum tuum” by William Byrd, their voices blending in rich magic, promising a performance not to be missed.

One more piece must be described – the Scottish folk song “Tarry Woo’.” It seems that sheep were treated with a tar salve to keep them free from disease and pests. The practice provided wool of exceptional quality, but the wool was hard to card and spin. The cottage knitters huddled around the fireplace and with maybe one candle sang this song as they labored long hours for a tiny income. The performance involved a handful of carders and knitters on stage (including Lycan) who dropped nary a stitch. Rhonda Matteson, Anne Menkens, Virginia Byers Kraus, and Joan Troy sang verses solo and the chorus joined in the refrain “Tarry woo’, O tarry woo’, Tarry woo’ is ill to spin; Card it well, oh Card it well, Card it well ere you begin.” After the second verse, the audience began to hum or sing the refrain and by the last verse seemed quite at home with it. It was something special that seemed to touch some primal element in all – the need for closeness, the longing for a simpler time, maybe just the unequaled lilt of a Scottish tune. It was something special, indeed!

The concert ended with three art-song settings of texts from the Bard of Avon. The chorus’s outstanding accompanist Deborah Coclanis finally had a chance to shine in some nice interludes by Mary Charmichael, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Clifton J. Noble, Jr. Special praise should go to harpist Laura S. Byrne, who accompanied many of the selections in a variety of styles, unobtrusive and supportive, and adding that something special – even spectacular – when called for. Finally, hearty thanks to Mary Lycan – for finding such music, for preparing the chorus, for drawing together such fine musical talent, and for making us all much richer by sharing these sparkling gems with us.