If once in your life time you find yourself at a concert like this consider yourself among the most fortunate of people. It is not however as though it was unexpected. The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop has long been acclaimed for their extraordinary performances, their precision of technical vocal skills as well as their keen interpretive aptitude. Wynkoop is a master conductor and, in addition, his artistic skill in choosing and ordering program selections often goes unmentioned but is no small thing.

This program, titled “Light Eternal” brought together of seven selections, most of which are contemporary or contemporary feeling at least. Each piece contributed to or expanded upon the theme in meaningful ways.

The program opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Mass in G Minor, one of the contemplative and otherworldly scores composed immediately following his World War I service as an ambulance driver in France.

The “Kyrie” is based on a five note modal theme which is developed through serene counterpoint. It was an impressive start for this outstanding program. The first minute of music demonstrated Wynkoop’s virtuosity at shaping phrases and folding them into the whole providing a seamless development. In the “Gloria” section Vaughan Williams unleashes the full harmonic and antiphonal potential of the double chorus. The “Credo” is the dramatic center of the Mass, its narration of Christ’s passion, coupled with the confession of the articles of faith, elicits an almost oratorio-like response from the composer and a sumptuous performance from the choir and the soloists. The “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” respond to the text with passages that suggest the swaying of censors, the dancing of cherubim and antiphonal Hosannas. The dark, expressive “Agnus Dei” brings the Mass full circle; the prayer for peace, “Dona nobis pacem,” reprising the five-note theme of the prayer for mercy that opened the work (“Kyrie eleison.”) The performance was a perfect blend of ethereal beauty and mystical contemplation.

There were twenty soloists involved in the performance of the Mass in G Minor, all members of VAE and each one deserving of individual accolades. Some of the solo quartet passages were absolutely spine-chilling. Note: some 25 minutes of challenging a capella singing ended exactly on pitch – remarkable!

Warum ist das Licht gegebenis the first of the two motets of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 74,composed in the period of his “high maturity,” around the time of the first two symphonies. Both the assembly of texts and the compositional virtuosity of the piece are breathtaking. The first movement is a setting of text from the book of Job and is the most developed of the four movements. It is characterized by the simple but powerful, anguished setting of the word “Warum” (why). This is followed by marvelously developed polyphonic passages with that awesome “Warum” occurring three more times before it ends the movement. The second movement is a brief passage from Lamentations calling for praise of God and the third movement is from the New Testament book of James, full of hope and promise. This motet is clearly modeled on similar works by J. S. Bach and like those works it ends with a harmonization of a Lutheran chorale melody. The performance was a model of expressive virtuosity.

The remaining five selections were by contemporary composers born well after Vaughan Williams wrote his lovely mass. Trond Kverno (b.1945) is a successful Norwegian composer. His setting of “Ave maris stella,” a hymn extoling traits of Virgin Mary, is harmonically rich opening with women’s voices followed by a male voice section. The texture and tempo changes to reflect the text and poses rhythmic and harmonic challenges which VAE thrives on.

Brian A. Schmidt (b.1980) is a bright and gifted conductor and composer with a passion for growing the choral arts in America. He graduated from South Dakota State University with a BME in Choral Conducting and recently completed the DMA in Choral Conducting at the University of North Texas. He has been appointed to the staff of Duke Chapel and will fill the position recently vacated by Allan Friedman. His “Lux æterna” was an ideal choice for this program and was sung beautifully by VAE.

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi was born 1963 in Turku, Finland, and works by him have appeared on previous VAE concert programs. His extraordinary “Canticum calamitatis maritimæ” was written in response to the accidental sinking of the car ferry Estonia in 1994, and is dedicated to the memory of the 910 passengers and crew who perished that day. It begins with a whispered intonation of words from the Requiem: “May eternal light shine upon them, Lord….” A solo soprano (Kristen Blackman was awesome!) sings over a low drone a wordless lullaby of lament. The tenor soloist chants in Latin the words of the first radio broadcast informing the public of the disaster. The full choir sings a virtuosic setting of text from Psalm 107: “They that go down to the sea in ships . . .” The piece closes with a choral reprise of the soprano lament and the opening words of the Requiem. It was an emotionally overwhelming experience to hear this challenging music sung with such knowledge and skill. It is, I believe, from the same cut as J. S. Bach’s Cantata 106, “Actus Tragicus.” There is something about disaster that leads us to sound out the depth of the universal human experience.

James MacMillan (b.1959) is a Scottish conductor and among the most accomplished of choral music composers of our time. “Factus est repente” is a motet setting of text from Acts 2:2-4 which describes the rush of a mighty wind when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. MacMillan has his own unique voice and his music is strikingly alive. It was another outstanding vehicle for this superb chorus.

The final piece on the printed program was “Zephyr Rounds” by Robert Vuichard (b.1985). This, using text from John 3:8, is another virtuosic piece by a young and very promising composer. It is in the improbable time signature of 13/8. Try counting that on your fingers!

No problem for VAE singers, though I am sure it took some studied preparation and it worked quite effectively.

For an encore, Wynkoop chose Stephen Paulus’ “The Old Church.” It was lovely and a fitting benediction to an amazing program.