Tag Archives: Larsen

Vox Nova Shines Again

Vox Nova
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 classbeat@netscape.net.

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.