Coping with crisisVoces8, undoubtedly the world’s reigning a cappella vocal ensemble, streamed for Duke Performances an unforgettable virtual concert from their Voces8 Centre at St Anne and St Agnes Church in London. Titled “Enchanted Isle,” their program celebrated the great compositional traditions of the British Isles in both secular and sacred songs, several with contemporary “twists.”

Formed in 2003, this British ensemble has a huge footprint in the musical world – its own Foundation, center of activities, and record label. They are all over social media and YouTube. To read about the sheer number of performances/concerts/workshops/recordings they do annually is enough to dazzle even the most jaded soul. They are disciplined, impeccable performers who have achieved an incomparably rich choral sound, and whose musical intelligence transcends any style or genre.

The performers were Andrea Haines (first soprano), Eleonore Cockerham (second soprano), Katie Jeffries-Harris (first alto), Barnaby Smith, (second alto/countertenor), Euan Williamson (second tenor), Blake Morgan (first tenor), Chris Moore (baritone), and Jonathan Pacey (bass).

Perhaps I am pandemic-weary, but I heard in their programming an over-riding somber note, with cries of grief and pleas for protection. They deviated significantly from their printed program (sending this reviewer scurrying to locate texts) and began with Orlando Gibbons’s “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears,” a very somber anthem with text by poet and clergyman Phineas Fletcher. In their performance style, Voces8 captured the somber nature of this beautiful little work with utter physical stillness, remaining absolutely static despite the beautiful shaping of each short phrase. This was followed by “The Deer’s Cry,” a sacred motet by Arvo Pärt. The text for this Irish lorica, a prayer for protection, was derived from St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer attributed to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. The words “Christ with me” echoed over and over, like a hypnotizing mantra. In this magnificent work, stillness and silence are ever prevalent in the gaps between phrases, and only bloomed sonically in a great crescendo at its longest text lines.

Thomas Tallis’ motet from the Office of Lauds, “O Nata Lux,” was framed by a chant set against a low pedal tone in the bass. A surprising dissonance greeted us at the final cadence. This was followed by “Regina Caeli Laetare” a 8 by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Victoria’s emulation of the grand Venetian style of polychoral, antiphonal writing brought some of the evening’s most animated singing and widened dynamic range from the ensemble.

A return to somber homophony was heard in Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous “Bogoroditse Devo,” an Ave Maria text from his All-Night Vigil. This was followed without pause by “Let My Love Be Heard” by Jake Runestad, a favorite American composer of theirs. Its deeply moving text, a plea for peace and love in the face of grief, set at times to soaring melismas, was the spiritual core of the entire program and may well be the song for our times.

“Lux Aeterna” (Nimrod) by Edward Elgar brought about some strong, full-out singing of this well-loved standard, followed by “Love Endureth” by Roxanna Panufnik, the group’s Composer-in-Residence. This astonishing and appealing cross-cultural work incorporates Spanish Sephardic chants and Hebrew psalm tunes in a playful and luminous contemporary, dissonant idiom which proved to be a real test of the ensemble’s intonation.

A retreat back to the 16th century included Thomas Weelkes’s madrigal “As Vesta Was to Latmos Hill Descending” and Orlando Di Lasso’s chattering chanson “Dessus le Marché D’Arras.” The ensemble attempted to convey the instances of word painting in the former (to an audience without the text in front of them) with small gestures and facial expressions, most to comic effect, and pulled off the lively “patter song” effect in the latter with ease.

The final set consisted of four contemporary settings. The arranger of “Danny Boy” was Joshua Pacey, brother of the ensemble’s bass singer Jonathan Pacey. “Underneath the Stars” by Kate Rusby, arranged by Jim Clements, the ensemble’s Arranger-in-Residence, was a song about the pain of finding, then losing love. “Caledonia” by Dougie Maclean, arranged by Blake Morgan (the first tenor and the only American), was a song of longing for home (“Caledonia” is the old Roman name for Scotland). Ending the program was “Moondance,” Van Morrison’s incomparable jazz-infused love song (arranged here by Alexander L’Estrange), delivered with unfettered cool.

The challenge for any audience listening to such vocal music is to gain utter familiarity with the text of each song beforehand, as the words will not appear anywhere in the program. The brief “gist of a song” given by a singer (as was done here) shortly before it is sung is never enough for the listener to derive its full meaning, particularly as each text is inextricably tied to compositional devices or affect. When planning to attend such a concert, it certainly pays to do your homework!