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From a personal comfort standpoint, the concert took place on just about the unfriendliest day so far into an unfriendly pre-summer. But the maintenance staff at Meredith College did a swell job in making Jones Chapel cool and comfortable. The place stayed cool throughout the program, despite the best efforts of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham to warm it up. The group, under conductor Rodney Wynkoop, reached their frenzied zenith as they led into intermission with Aaron J. Kernis' "I Cannot Dance, O Lord." Irony abounded in this most modern treatment of a 13th-century text. The vocal and physical language of the singers crackled with such lines as "...I will leap into Love and from Love into Knowledge and from Knowledge into Harvest..." and "There will I stay with You (O Lord) whirling."
Certainly, though, not all of the concert was given over to pyrotechnics. Comprising some twenty selections, the program was heavily weighted toward the contemporary. Setting the tone for the evening were the "Exultate Deo," of Poulenc, and Tavener's "A Hymn to the Mother of God." These pieces immediately established this group as belonging to the first rank. Employing no mechanical instrument save a pitch pipe, the thirty-three singers never seemed to sag in intonation.
One work of special note was "i thank You God for most this amazing day." Here, composer Eric Whitacre has fashioned the text from a poem by e. e. cummings. For all of that poet's idiosyncrasies (occasional nonsense expressions, upper case limited to the Deity, casual punctuation), the work proved quite engaging. Featured here and in other numbers was the unwavering and bell-like voice of a soprano who, along with the other fine soloists, deserved identification on the printed program.
Among choral works that one should not miss would be "Tonight Eternity Alone" by René Clausen, among the elite of current composers. It would be hard to improve upon this compelling work or its realization by these singers. "When David Heard," by Norman Dinerstein, seemed to be a rather radical update (successful?) of the 19th-century classic, "David's Lamentation," by William Billings.
The aforementioned pitch pipe was not employed during the entirety of Mendelssohn's "Die Erste Frülingstag" ("The First Day of Spring"). That the pitch stayed true through all six of these songs is a testament to the discipline and technique of Wynkoop and all of his colleagues. Yet another grandiose piece was Swedish composer David Wikander's "Kung Liljekonvalje" ("King Lily of the Valley"). With sentiments like "...sighs filling the forest. Words whisper through the dell...," the song was as intensely charming as its title might suggest.
Lines from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Macbeth were featured in Finnish composer and translator Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's "Come Away Death" and "Double, Double Toil and Trouble," respectively. Clear enunciation was evident in these lines, where such clarity tends to be in demand. The group stirred up quite a witches' brew in the latter piece.
The program was entitled "Beyond All Mortal Dreams." It is questionable whether any earthly entity could reach that lofty a plane, but anyway, the enthusiastic audience could scarcely have been better served.