I heard Apollo5 in concert on 12/19/20 as part of the Live From London Christmas concert series (the concert was live on 12/6/20). They’re a five-person group (two women, three men) who I had first heard in the Live From London series a few months before.
They opened with an arrangement of a 15th century Christmas chant, “Gaudete Piae Cantiones.” One of the women in the group played the drum, which gave a little extra drama. “Virgen Sancta” by Francisco Guerrero was lovely but maybe a little pale and wan for my taste, like they had just donated blood. They ended the first set with a tune I knew, “Noël Nouvelet.”
The next set opened with a dazzling piece for four voices by the Renaissance master, Josquin des Prez, “Gaude Virgo Mater Christi.” Nothing pale or wan here, they sang with vigor. It was exciting.
They sang a lovely, limpid arrangement of an English Christmas carol, “The Angel Gabriel,” then a piece for the tenor and the two women, “Oh, Virgen, Quand’os” by Miro Francisco Guerrero. It was hushed and tender without being precious. I like that they mix up the voicing as much as they do, with pieces for three or four voices, that gives a nice variety to the program. VOCES8 could do some of that! They ended the set with an arrangement of that horror classic, “Coventry Carol.”
Do you know how much I love Poulenc? Oh dear Lord yes, such fantastic music, so distinctive, such startling harmonies. They did a four-voice piece of his, “Salve Regina.” Their performance couldn’t have been more beautiful - - they were elegant and pious, they leaned into the juicy dissonances without distorting the line. This was the highlight of the concert.
They did an arrangement of a French carol, “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes.” The familiar (too familiar?) “Angels We Have Heard on High” is a slightly reworked version of this carol. I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was curious about the adaptation - - it was done by Edward Shippen Barnes, an American composer born in 1887. He got his degree at Yale, studied in Paris with D'Indy, Vierne, and Decaux, and worked as an organist at various churches in New York City, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica.
"Angels We Have Heard On High" seems so deeply embedded in the Christmas culture, I was surprised to learn that it was done in the 20th century. He made the first half of the carol a little more interesting, but was smart to not make any changes to the divine, melismatic “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Here’s a side by side comparison, starting with the Apollo5 performance from this concert:
This performance of "Angels We Have Heard On High" by Libera is maybe a little shrill, but you get the picture:
Wasn’t I just saying how tired I am of “Carol of the Bells”? Thankfully they did it pretty fast, so it was over quickly. They did an impressive new piece by the young English composer Alexander Campkin, “The Crimson Sun.” Now that I’m in my fifties, I feel I need to be specific with my use of the word “young:” this guy is 36.
I was a little worried to see an arrangement of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” on the program. I get skittish when a hoity toity English decides to get all groovy and downtown. My worries were well founded, their performance was coy and annoying, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The “Doo WAH!” at the end did not help. I’m sure that audiences go crazy for this kind of drivel, or they wouldn’t do it, right?
Next was another highlight of the concert, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square.” At first I was disappointed to see they were doing an arrangement by Jim Clements, when the Gene Puerling arrangement for Manhattan Transfer is so brilliant. But they won me over for a few reasons: first of all, it was nice hearing a new arrangement, and five voices versus four made a difference. And Clements included the verse (the intro), which I don’t think I’d heard before.
They ended with another annoyance, an arrangement of “Santa Baby.” I want to hear Eartha Kitt doing this song, not Apollo5. Yes, I know that Miss Kitt has gone on to her great reward, but isn’t that why she made the recording? They redeemed themselves with their encore, a tasty arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.” Hang a shining star upon the highest bough, will you already?
VOCES8 had an added bonus after the concert, a performance by the 20-member Voices of Singapore Children’s Choir. This is another benefit to a concert happening online, you can easily insert a performance from the other side of the world. The group had a richness you don’t often hear in a youth choir, though I think they might have been aided by the cathedral-esque setting. Or maybe they had an extra burnished quality thanks to the masks they were wearing…?