If Miss Littlejohn’s Latin classes still serve reliably after all these years, Vox Virorum simply means the “Voice of Men.” But there was nothing “simple” about the intrepid program mounted by this group on a brisk and breezy Sunday afternoon. In the graceful sanctuary of Durham’s First Presbyterian Church, Vox Virorum titled their winter concert, “Ring out the Old, Ring in the New!” There this splendid 23-voice men’s ensemble spanned an impressive spectrum of music styles with a round dozen offerings.
As if to validate the program title, Director Jeremy Nabors chose to open with Tennyson’s “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Here chorus member John Benton assisted regular pianist Deborah Coclanis in the lively two-piano accompaniment, replete with percussion by Jennie Vaughn and a non-credited player, all as called for by composer Ron Nelson. Although obvious quality came through, this opener was the only piece wherein the accompaniment tended to overwhelm the singers.
It was solemnity time early as the singers launched into the darkly elegant “Spaseniye Sodélal” by the Russian composer Chesnokov, a work most often rendered in the English translation, “Salvation Is Created.” The precision and attention to detail in this a cappella number set a lofty standard for the entire afternoon. The same “Russian” sound carried on into Peter Urqubart’s “Kiso Bushi,” a Japanese folk song.
The sacred spirit was invoked again later with the Franz Biebel “Ave Maria." This unaccompanied piece probably tested the mettle of these singers more severely than did any of the others. High tenors and low basses had their best chances to shine. Even though it was a relatively long number, there was no evident sagging of pitch, a malady that so often afflicts such a presentation. No fewer than six soloists participated.
It would be difficult to find a more charming work than “Song for the Mira,” by Allister MacGillivray, with oboe (Sydney Curtis), piano and five soloists. (Roughly half of the ensemble served as soloists at some time during the program.) This moving song celebrates the Mira River in Nova Scotia, as the narrator longs to relive earlier happy days on the river. “Stars on the riverface sparkle and spin. / I wish I was with them again.”
The men sang of “A Red, Red Rose,” and they comically declared that “I Had Four Brothers Over the Sea,” the latter in an arrangement by Seamus Kenney. They were powerfully reassuring in “Not While I’m Around” from Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, / Not while I’m around.” They energetically sailed the coasts of the “High Barbary.” Deborah Coclanis made the piano a veritable fifth voice with them in the “Pirate Song.” And lastly, the spiritual genre would not be denied as they chanted “I’m A-Rollin’” along …” through an unfriendly world. / Won’t you help me in the service of the Lord.”
Here is a relatively new ensemble of uncommon quality, too little known hereabouts. If you have a yen for fine choral singing (as who doesn’t?), you are urged to seek out appearances by a group projecting vigor and vitality, or more specifically, an outfit called Vox Virorum.