VOCES8 performing Nat Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
VOCES8 in performance March 1 in Temple Beth-El
March 2, 2020
The trouble with perfection is that there’s really not much a critic can say about it other than to remark about its… um… perfection. Consider, for example, the British ensemble VOCES8, which is a more or less perfect name for an ensemble of eight voices. Presented by the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, the troupe appeared March 1 in Temple Beth-El.
VOCES8 comprises two each of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. One of the altos is a countertenor, Barnaby Smith, who also is the artistic director. Their program ranged from the Renaissance (William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando di Lasso) to fresh arrangements of contemporary folk and pop.
The troupe set an impossibly high standard from the start, with William Byrd’s spirited anthem Sing Joyfully, and never retreated an inch. Impeccable pitch, precise timing, and responsive teamwork gave Byrd’s intricate polyphony a creamy blend. An energetic bounce propelled the music. Here, and in several of the works that followed, sopranos Andrea Haines and Eleonore Cockerham floated effortless stratospheric high notes that were gleaming and straight as (stainless) steel I-beams.
The program included vocal arrangements of two familiar pieces from the end of the 19th century, set to religious texts: The culminating hymn from Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia was set to “Be Still My Soul,” and the majestic “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations enrobed Lux aeterna (from the Latin Mass) in splendor.
VOCES8’s composer-in-residence for the current season, Roxanna Panufnik, was represented by her setting of Psalm 136, Love Endureth. The music gets DNA from both of the composer’s parents: Honoring her Jewish mother, she incorporated sections of the Sephardic Jewish chant for the psalm; and she shares with her Catholic father, the eminent composer Andrzej Panufnik, a way of sending roots deep into music history and a penchant for arresting dissonances. In Love Endureth, one can hear echoes of medieval organum, Renaissance polyphony, and the vivid harmonies of the Modern period.
Speaking of Modern: Arrangements of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Nat Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” brought to mind the style of the Modernaires, a vocal quintet that was a long-running fixture of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. But, delightfully, an anticipation of that style could be detected in VOCES8’s jazzy account of Thomas Weelkes’ 1601 madrigal As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending.
For sheer beauty, it would be hard to top the iridescent harmonies and complex textures in Joshua Pacey’s expansive arrangement of the traditional “Danny Boy.”
But beautiful beyond words was Arvo Pärt’s haunting The Deer’s Cry. The text, from the concluding portion of an ancient prayer known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, begins “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me….” The music begins shadowed and spare, punctuated by long silences, gradually blooms with polyphonic lines and rich harmonies that, near the end, are suffused with light. It’s a journey from pain to succor, wrapped in the ubiquity of the divine – whatever the divine means to you.
VOCES8 performing Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry.
A nimble, well-tuned V8
VOCES8 performing Lux aeterna, set to a vocal arrangement of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod."