The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham has established a reputation as the choral group in the Triangle not to be missed by those who find the perfect blend of human voices something very special and important. This evening concert in Duke Chapel added a significant measure to the achievements of this outstanding group, one of a handful of superb groups conducted by Rodney Wynkoop. The program title, “Timeless Voices,” might have led one to expect familiar old favorites. This was not the case. The program included several familiar favorites and also music from the 16th to the 20th century, some of it rarely performed.

The concert began with “Come let’s rejoice” by the early Baroque music master at Ely Cathedral, John Amner (1579-1641). It was sung from memory and was a sparkling gem, like one of the stars of heaven brought down to earth for our close inspection, pleasure and amazement. Silken sound, perfectly balanced blend, enthusiastic vocalization and enunciation proclaimed right off the bat what an extraordinary group these singers and their conductor have become.

J.S. Bach’s Motet No. 1, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” S.225, followed. One of six motets, probably composed 1726-30, it is often sung a cappella. Wynkoop chose the common practice of having a string quartet double choir I and a woodwind quartet double choir II. It is an extremely difficult sing, with intricate and complex technical demands. No lesser a figure than Philippe Herreweghe has referred to the motets as “consummate” in conception and “fearsomely difficult to perform.” VAE was on top throughout, singing crisply and liltingly and meeting all the demands of the amazing creative genius of the Cantor of Leipzig.

And if that were not enough, the first half closed with a performance of the unaccompanied Mass in G by Francis Poulenc. This work is, in my estimation, one of the seminal choral compositions of the 20th century. I have not heard it in a live concert since singing it fifty years ago this summer, which is a shame, for its rewards are compounded with each hearing. Written a year after the tragic and terrible death of his close friend and fellow musician Pierre-Octave Ferroud, this work brought Poulenc back to the faith he had abandoned when his father died nearly 20 years earlier.

Poulenc’s Mass, dedicated to his father, is a setting of the Ordinary in the manner of a Missa Brevis, omitting the Credo and dividing the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. It begins with an austere, almost stark statement of the Kyrie, with the first sopranos and first basses singing a chant-like melody way up in the stratosphere while the second sopranos and second basses sing a sustained low drone beneath them. Following that, a polyphonic passage has the tenors imitating the sopranos, building with very dissonant harmony to a big climax. Throughout this piece there are lovely clashing harmonies, often surprising and not at all what you would expect, yet each movement ends with a warm, comforting and familiar triad. The Gloria begins with basses singing the Latin in a percussive manner, somewhat reminiscent of the style of Stravinsky. The Sanctus which suggests angels singing their adoration, was amazing. The Benedictus builds from a simple beginning to an overwhelming “Hosanna in excelsis.” The closing movement, the Agnus Dei, involved soprano soloists Kristen Blackman and Patricia Donnelly Philipps singing in shimmering, radiant voices the chant-like melody that began the Mass, often over a drone. The piece ends with an exquisite unison G on the word “pacem” (“peace”). It is an extremely difficult and demanding work to sing, and it is transfixing and stunning to hear.

After intermission, the choir sang, with obvious affection, Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei,” the choral setting of his Adagio for Strings, which itself is a setting of the slow movement of his 1936 String Quartet. It was sung with the most lush, gorgeous ensemble imaginable. Philipps’ solo at the climax did not stand out as it does on the VAE’s recorded version of this piece on the CD My Spirit Sang All Day (Arsis). For me, the blend and overall effectiveness were well-nigh perfect tonight.

Four Quartets by Johannes Brahms were accompanied by the warm touch of Jane Lynch, the choir’s sensitive and responsive rehearsal and performance keyboard partner. Typically lush Brahms, the four songs by four different poets, deal with times of the day and seasons.

For the conclusion of the concert, we were treated to the amazing craftsman-like artistry of Benjamin Britten. His Five Flower Songs, collected from various poets, describe flowers of transcendent beauty (“The Evening Primrose”) awesome strangeness (“Marsh Flowers”), and humorous playfulness (“Ballad of Green Broom”). (Try to say “green broom” five times as quickly as you can!) Britten had a unique knowledge of the sound of the human voice and an astonishing skill at writing music to stretch the voice to its full potential. VAE relishes such challenges and accomplishes all that is asked of them.

For an encore, another treat of the velvety smooth ensemble was presented with a performance of C.H.H. Parry’s setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” which vibrates in the memory…. Ah yes. Remember the title of the program of this concert? “Timeless Voices.” Music lives only in the moment of its performance, but the vibrations in the memory live on and linger in the spirit, perhaps forever.

(This concert was a repeat, with the exception of the Bach Motet 1, of a performance given in Kenan Recital Hall, Peace College, Raleigh, on June 9)

Addendum: During the week of June 4, the VAE was chosen to perform again at the Southern Division American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) convention in March 2008 in Louisville, where they will sing the Poulenc Mass along with a couple of other pieces from the above program. This will be their third appearance at the southern division convention, and they also were chosen to sing at the national ACDA convention a couple of years ago.