Vocal Arts Ensemble-the Art of Small-Scale Choral Music
by John W. Lambert
The last of the vocal music concerts under discussion this week was presented in Duke Chapel on the evening of November 11. The lineup was compiled by one of our great resident program builders, Rodney Wynkoop, who also directed the elite Vocal Arts Ensemble and some augmentees in an evening devoted, on Veterans' Day, to "Music of Remembrance." The concert was recorded, so Wynkoop spoke several times to the large audience, asking the public to allow the sound to decay before responding to the performances of the various numbers, which were in some cases grouped. He noted that Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, is also known as Remembrance Day, and in a note sent before the concert, he explained that the program was intended to "memorializ[e] those whose lives have been lost [but] it turn[ed] out to have a lot of significance to our present world situation as well." He also noted that "The concert embodie[d] themes of separation from God (both literally and spiritually), of weeping over the ravages of war, of the power of music to make gentle that which is savage and its persistent presence even in the face of death, and of pleading for peace." The program delivered everything he planned and more.
The evening began with a rare live performance of Tallis's "Spem in alium," a 40-voice motet (for eight five-member choruses--SATBB). In this piece, Tallis set the bar high, and no subsequent composer--Strauss comes to mind, with "Metamorphosen," for 23 solo strings--has come close to matching his accomplishment. Hearing the piece delivered in the flesh, by the 32-member VAE and eight augmentees, proved richly rewarding, musically and emotionally--and the crowd was further rewarded when, in response to sustained applause at the end, after the first encore, "Spem in alium" was repeated.
The rest of the program was, with two exceptions, devoted to music composed in the 20th century. Those exceptions were Bortniansky's "Come, o people, let us praise," sung in Church Slavonic, and the Agnus Dei from Widor's Mass (for double choir and two organs), which brought the program to its formal close. Of the other works, four were by living composers, and one of them--Dan Locklair, of WFU--was present as his "Create in me a clean heart" received a glowing performance, accompanied by organist Jane Lynch. This is an ethereal piece that, after the Tallis, set the mood for the rest of the program. Remarkably, while all the numbers were distinct and different, taken together they conveyed all the requisite emotions, for they ranged from supplication to lamentation to despair to reflection on losses to heartbreaking trauma brought at the moment of death and then back up the chain to serenity and hope and praise. Along the way, there were more than a few references, in texts and music, to the freedom from strife represented by birds in flight. After the Locklair, the music ranged from Egil Hovland's "How long, O Lord" to Edwin Fissinger's bitter "By the waters of Babylon" to Norman Dinerstein's bleak "When David heard" to Paul A. Aitken's "Flanders Fields"--which was remarkable in part because it was composed by a person who was born at the very end of the Vietnam era. John Rutter set the course for our return from the brink with "Musica Dei donum," after which came the Bortniansky, Barber's Agnus Dei (based on the Adagio for Strings), and the concluding Widor Mass excerpt. It's a safe bet that many in attendance were frequently moved by what was sung and by the sheer beauty of the singing. Along the way, there were some solo contributions--from sopranos Patricia Donnelly Philipps and Caroline Warren, alto Leigh Joyner Wynkoop, and narrator Steve Harper, and from flutist Rebecca Troxler and organists Lynch and Justin Berg. At the end, a standing ovation and extended applause elicited a performance of Robert Page's striking arrangement of "America the Beautiful" and then, after still more applause, a repeat of the opening Tallis number.
Wynkoop has rewritten the meaning of the term "great choral music," and one of the vehicles he has used in the process is the Vocal Arts Ensemble, a crack group of our area's finest singers that includes composers, other choral directors, and many singers who grace our stages as soloists. Those who have not yet experienced the work of this group owe it to themselves to do so next time, for sure.