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The Vocal Arts Ensemble's first CD hit area stores the week of June 14, and it served as a reminder - if one were needed - of the excellence of the small (33-voice) choral group, formed in 1996 by Duke-based Rodney Wynkoop, that has set all kinds of new standards here (and elsewhere too). The director, who also leads Durham's estimable Choral Society, the Choral Society's own Chamber Choir, and various Duke and Duke Chapel choirs, is among our leading program makers, so it should come as no surprise that the VAE's latest concert offering, presented in the Chapel on the evening of June 20, was at once themed - the subject was light, and the title was "The Long Day Closes" - and richly varied. The music was mostly contemporary (which is to say, from the 20th century); of the 13 composers represented, only four - Charles Wood, C. Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Arthur Sullivan - were born in the 19th century. Their music might have been seen as the artistic and spiritual anchors of the program, but in truth their numbers merely helped set the stage for the works of their successors.
The VAE's members come from all over the Triangle and include some of our leading solo artists, directors, and teachers. It's a tribute to Wynkoop that he draws people who lead other choirs and who sing in other choirs, too - this is truly an elite ensemble of the best vocalists in the region. They can't be motivated by glory, because the VAE performs only several times a year, and in otherwise off-months, when there's not much else going on. The concert under discussion, offered early on Fathers Day evening, drew a substantial crowd at the end of a spectacularly beautiful weekend, but the Chapel was hardly full. Nonetheless, many distinguished artists were in the audience for the performance.
And nature cooperated beautifully, too: as the concert began, with Woods' "Hail, gladdening Light," the gladdening light lit up the Chapel's stained glass windows in a truly spectacular way, and as the program unfolded, the gathering darkness reduced the light in ways that paralleled and complemented the VAE's astonishing control of dynamics and light and shade in the music.
Two sets of numbers were paired, but otherwise the generous program was dotted with applause, and Wynkoop offered oral program notes that offset the absence thereof in the printed handout - which nonetheless contained texts and translations as needed. The first pair consisted of Stephen Paulus' "Guiding Light of Eternity" and Eric Whitacre's "Lux aurumque" ("Light of gold"), with soprano soloist Kristen Blackman. In these and in John Rutter's "Hymn to the Creator of Light," which ends with a communion hymn, and in René Clausen's "La lumière," various aspects of light as the enhancer of spirituality were magnificently explored, and the realizations were, in a word, sublime. "Bird" works by György Ligeti and by Georgy Sviridov - birds respond to light, too - were next; these birds were, respectively, roosters and magpies, and they brought the first half to a merry close. Svirdov's Pushkin-based "Chattering Magpie" was a technical tour-de-force of considerable proportions, with a high ratio of consonants to vowels, taken at an awesome pace that suggested the old Moiseyev Dance Company's "Partisans" routine; whether it was worth the effort that went into it may be debated, but no one could fault the execution or the superb solo work of soprano Elizabeth Clark Peretti.
Daffodils as treated by Parry - flowers, too, are "children" of light - led to György Orbán's Stabat Mater, at ten minutes or so, the evening's major work. This piece ends with (13th-century words) that are, as Wynkoop astutely told the audience, mirrored in music: "When my body shall die,/let my soul be granted/the glory of Paradise...." The crowd sensed the moment, and when it was over, a long pause held the inspiration before applause filled the venue.
That aforementioned programming skill was particularly apparent in the next number, which was Sergei Kalintsev's setting of Christ's "Do not weep for me, Mother...," and in the one after that - Vaughan Williams' hymn-like part-song, "Rest," which has its own apostrophe to paradise. Each of these pieces was treated as if it were the greatest music from the greatest master, ever - so committed are the choir and its director.
It was then something of a relief to hear Samuel Barber's gem-like "The Coolin'," although its message is as somber as much of the rest of the program. Ligeti's short, thorny "Night" was another matter; although its text fit the prevailing mood, the setting was far-out and at first hearing somewhat off-putting. Wynkoop sensed this and - in the manner of the great champions of the past - led it a second time, following which the response was more enthusiastic. (We'll leave for another day why : it could have been that twice was enough for some in attendance....)
The rest was (no pun intended) lighter still. Arrangements of the English folk song "Golden slumbers" and our own "Shenandoah" (in an absolutely unsentimental and very slow version) led to Arthur Sullivan's "The long day closes," which served as the program's title. Violinist Eric Pritchard, of the Ciompi Quartet, graced the first two of these final numbers with artistry of his own; it speaks volumes that the VAE engaged an artist of his caliber to play in these selections. In the last piece as in all the other works, the VAE did wonders, singing and projecting and illuminating the music in ways rarely heard elsewhere. The encore - Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's"Pseudo-Yoik," sung in a made-up mish-mash, provided just the right amount of levity. For the record, the other languages sung were English, Latin, French, Hungarian, and Russian. It was quite an evening. No one who loves the vocal arts and who is unfamiliar with the Vocal Arts Ensemble should miss the group's next performance. And in the meanwhile, there's that new CD to tantalize and amaze.