Most of us who love the expressive beauty of fine choral singing look forward to the once-a-year Vocal Arts Ensemble concert, and most of us who are fortunate enough to be able to attend that concert are bowled over by the quality of this group. This year was no exception. The VAE is hand-picked by the inestimable Rodney Wynkoop – thirty-three voices (this year), many of whom are professional musicians in their own right, and some of whom are heard as soloists or singers with other choral groups throughout the concert season. Their mission: superior choral opportunities for the singers, for maestro Wynkoop and for audiences.

This concert consisted of twelve selections (thirteen, including an encore) by world class contemporary composers, all but two of them still living. The title of the concert was “There Will Be Rest” which is the title of one of the featured selections: Dale Warlands’s setting of Sara Teasdale’s mystical poem of the same name. The pieces were chosen as a sort of Requiem, a memorial to all those who have lost their lives in various human tragedies; man-made and natural. It was a clinic of setting great texts to great music effectively and meaningfully. If space would permit, I should include each verse or prose text in this review, for in this concert especially the texts held the meaning and understanding of the music.

The opening work, “Dryad’s Bells” by Stephen Chatman, consisting of only dings and dongs and other related onomatopoeia bell sounds, was a rhythmic and harmonic tour de force capturing in choral sounds the spirit and feel of bells. Next came one of the highlights of the program from my perspective, the world premiere of Dan Locklair’s “Bond and Free,” dedicated to Rodney Wynkoop. The text by Robert Frost was set to music, ostensibly in the key of G (according to the composer), but stretched the harmonic intensity as to be almost unbearable, especially at the climax. The music filled my breast to full. This chorus under this conductor knows how to sing from a whisper to overwhelming intensity, how to shape a phrase, how to build to a climax, how to sing so well pitched that they take the audience into realms of possibility beyond the ordinary.

The second set included James MacMillan’s “A child’s prayer,” a deeply touching and moving musical realization of a traditional liturgical communion sentence. Steven Sametz is known to all choristers for his often performed little gem “I have had singing.” On this concert we heard his setting of a remarkable text by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), adapted from “Death Is Nothing At All,” a sermon following the death of King Edward VII. “On the death of a friend,” through rich and intense harmony, fed the text with deep meaning and comfort. Frances Poulenc’s Tenebrae Motet “Vinea me electa,” with its own unique harmonic language gracefully filled this set.

Herbert Howells’ masterpiece, “Take him, earth, for cherishing.” written in memory of JFK, will live as long as human memory exists. It is based on text from the 5th century that speaks well to our need to grieve what has been lost in this life and to our longing for comfort and hope.

After a very brief intermission, the concert continued with music of Ned Rorem who has been generally recognized as America’s most gifted composer of art song. Jane Lynch joined the choir with piano accompaniment in their performance of Rorem’s setting of the Joseph Beaumont poem “Lift up your heads.” Following that was the Warland, “There will be rest” with flutist Rebecca Troxler and harpist Elizabeth Munch; the kind of music that gives the listener wings. Then, “Amen” by Dan Forrest infused the word with new life as a motet rising and fading with exquisite harmony until it rested in a whisper over all in Duke Chapel this evening.

To some extent all the pieces on this program involved some degree of text painting; the use of all the elements of music to reflect and enhance the meaning of the text. However, the next piece stands out in this respect. Composed by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, “Northern lights” is a setting that combines a folk song that describes the Northern Lights as the restless souls of fallen soldiers with the English words of two Arctic explorers who were awed by the display. The composer employs open harmonies and close dissonances while hand chimes spaced through the choir played a pentatonic sequence repeatedly. The overall effect was perhaps as near as most of us can get to this awesome vision.

The program closed with Arvo Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis” and then “Psalm 150 in Grandshire Triples” by Jaako Mäntyjärvi (Do you remember last year’s stunning “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae”?) Steven Paulus’s “The Road Home” was chosen to close the evening as encore. The tune, recognized by many as “The Lone Wild Bird,” graciously harmonized and set to a lovely text by Craig Hella Johnson, was exquisite.

The concert was simply choral music at its best sung as it should be sung: artfully, precisely, meaningfully. What can top that? Next year, I suspect.