Tag Archives: Vox Nova

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.

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

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