Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
Nov. 12, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Vox Nova, the chamber choir founded by Shannon Chase in 2009, has been expanding lately to include new vocal and instrumental consorts, while reaching a wider audience. It has lost none of its energy and precision
The audience at Crooker Theater on Sunday heard three of the Vox Nova groups in a concert that had also been performed a day earlier in Bangor. The result was a well-deserved standing ovation.
The first half of the “Autumnal Equinox” program was devoted to works sung by a small chamber choir called “Intima.” The group of fourteen singers showed a power incommensurate with its size. I was particularly impressed by the bass lines.
They performed a series of highly descriptive vignettes by Veljo Tormis (1930-2017), “Autumn Landscapes,” followed by a Robert Graves poem, “O Love Be Fed with Apples While You May,” a rather dismal work on the transient nature of things, set to a jazzy score by Morton Lauridsen (b. 1943), with a dissonant piano part played by Bridget Convey.
It concluded with a delightful musiking of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), with anoher fine piano part—not an accompaniment—by Convey and a trumpet solo so well attuned that it sounded like another voice in the choir.
The second half of the program featured the full Vox Nova Chamber Choir and an instrumental consort of woodwinds and brass, with the piano serving as both bass and percussion, when it wasn’t soaring alone.
The a cappella “Always Singing,” by Dale Warland (b. 1932), again showed the power of the bass section, but perfectly balanced with the other voices.
It was followed by “The Settling Years” of Libby Larsen (b. 1950), that captures the pioneer spirit of small-town America with perfect pitch. The audience broke into spontaneous applause after each of the three sections.
In “The Long Road,” by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) , wind chimes, alto flute, native American flute and ocarina formed part of the choir, almost like incidental bird songs and other natural sounds. Though assuredly contemporary, the work is homophonic, tonal and highly melodic.
Chase saved the best for last— a stunning “Come to the Woods,” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986), setting a passage on the joys of a windstorm by John Muir.
I have never heard anything like it. It might be called a concerto for piano and chorus, except that the brilliant piano part takes the form of an obligato to the choir, which often picks up the overtones of the loudest chords. Some passages are played with the sostenuto pedal down, resulting in a Debussy-like fog of sound. It is an amazing work, showing that traditional combinations are by no means exhausted.
I am generally opposed to piano accompaniment of massed voices, since its well-tempered intervals do not match those of a well-trained choir. This was something entirely different, the piano shining like a star. without dictating a thing.. Convey realized the part perfectly.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.