Once one leaves the hallowed halls of the symphony orchestra or the hushed environs of the string quartet, each musical subculture, even in the area of classical music, has its own very specific repertoire and group of composers – think of concert band, for example, or the brass quartet/quintet, where Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and the rest of those great Germanic figures only enter in the guise of arrangements, if that. The same is certainly true of the male chorus, which once held a very important place in both German and American culture, with Singvereine (which had an immense literature, completely forgotten today) and glee clubs, which only survive vestigially with the decline of male-only colleges and universities.
Vox Virorum, under the able direction of Jeremy Nabors, is explicitly a place for “men who sang in high school and college,” and its debut concert at Blacknall Presbyterian (a “mission” church hidden in the neighborhood between 9th Street and Whole Foods) displayed many of the most enticing characteristics of the collegiate male chorale. The group at present is an evenly balanced group of about two dozen tenors and basses, and they produce a rousing and impressive sound at full cry (fff), brassy, well-tuned, and strong. Those who know the choral scene know how difficult it is to find real tenors in the third American century (who knows why?), and I can report that Vox Virorum is well-supplied with the genuine article (as well as some fine deep basses at the other end of the gamut).
Their program was typical of the college chorale, with a few familiar names from the classical repertoire (Grieg, Mendelssohn) sprinkled among a larger body of contemporary arrangements. The group began their concert with a processional, an arrangement of the music of black South Africa (“Tshotsholaza”), and then moved to a work in Church Slavonic by Chesnokov, a cappella, which showed off their fine sound and pure intonation. “Brothers Sing On” by Grieg also offered beautiful full tones. After Foster’s “Gentle Annie,” the group moved on to a set of four spirituals, with “Steal Away” incorporating the Gregorian Kyrie “Orbis Factor” (you might not think it would work, but it did) and the closing “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” very effectively incorporating the sounds of chains into an arrangement of a traditional chain gang song by Robert DeCormier.
“Beati mortui,” by Mendelssohn, was as close as the group approached to the huge repertoire from the Roman Church for male voices, and some insecurities in tuning showed that the group still has space for progress.
There’s something about ships and pirates that men love, and the familiar “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor” displayed great good humor and some deep bass notes. The concert concluded with “The Awakening,” an extensive work relating the dream of a land without music, by Joseph M. Martin (b. 1959, from North Carolina), concluding the chorus’s program with a rousing “Let Music Live!”
The capacity crowd rewarded Vox with a standing ovation. I hope that they will continue to contribute to the musical scene in Durham and statewide. Bravo to Nabors for his initiative in getting this fine venture off the ground and into the air.