Voices of Ascension, March 9, 2022
I heard Voices of Ascension in concert on March 9, 2022. I've heard them many times, probably between 15 and 20 times, and this was one of their most memorable concerts. The program had this note: "Voices of Ascension performs this program to mark the two-year anniversary of the lockdown and in remembrance of long time supporter and board member Jeffrey Paley, as well as all those who have died during the COVID-19 pandemic." The last page of the program had an In Memoriam section with this note: "Voices of Ascension would especially like to celebrate the legacy of two long-time ensemble members who passed away during the last two years: mezzo-soprano BJ Fredricks and tenor/production manager G. Jan Jones." I knew G. Jan, he was a wonderful man. I know many people in the chorus, and especially their artistic director and conductor Dennis Keene, were thinking of G. Jan that night.
They opened the concert with one of Tchaikovsky's *Nine Sacred Pieces,* "Blazheni yazhe izbral." This was a piece that was written for the Russian Orthodox Church and was performed "in solidarity to our friends from Ukraine," which got supportive applause from the audience. Of course the piece is best heard in a supremely perfect professional performance like we heard from Voices of Ascension, but I could hear it being very effective sung by a good church choir or community chorus.
They did "Jerusalem," the finale of a cantata by Gounod. If the grand clichés of late 19th century French classical music weren't invented in this piece, surely it was here that they found their fullest expression. Soprano Liz Lang sang the glamorous solo part. She was juicy and totally delivered the fragrant style.
They sang two motets by Duruflé from his *Quatre motets sur des themes Grégoriens,* "Tu es Petrus" and "Ubi caritas." They were perfectly balanced, smooth, and lustrous. It was like hearing it played on the organ, with every note having the same weight and character as the notes surrounding it.
The next piece was something I was really looking forward to hearing, Poulenc's *Litianies à la Vierge Noire.* I'm a huge fan of Poulenc and this is one of his greatest and most distinctive pieces. It was stunning, with a glorious blend from the chorus and wonderful playing from organist Mark Kruczek, elegant yet angular. This piece always shocks me a little, the harmonies are daring.
Next, another piece written for the Russian Orthodox church: "Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda" by Tolstiakov. Add some brass and drums, throw in some pom poms, and you've got yourself a great high school fight song! Rah rah rah!
The closing work of the program was the Duruflé Requiem. I'd heard this piece just once before, in a mediocre performance by another NY chorus. I knew that it was considered the "signature piece" of Voices of Ascension - - conductor Dennis Keene had studied it with Duruflé's widow. The piece showed off the chorus - - I always say they have "the sound of holiness," and they had never sounded more holy. And the ensemble showed off the piece in all its tenderness, brazenness, and brilliance. I can't imagine a more beautiful or meaningful performance of the piece. Clearly it was very special to Keene and many members of the choir. It felt like they were expressing something intimate and personal. Because they were. And because Duruflé was.
The Introit and Kyrie were like molten silver, they got the piece off to a stunning start. The Domine Deus was shocking in its drama. The Sanctus was sweet and lovely at the start, it put a smile on my face (behind my mask) and it gradually built into a fabulous climax.
Mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford sang the Pie Jesu. She has the low voice for this, strong and warm but never vulgar. Her high voice was somewhat less convincing but what a magnificent singer. In my dreams I hear it sung by Marilyn Horne, Janet Baker, or Florence Quivar.
The Agnus Dei was direct, sincere, and reverent. The Lux Aeterna had a few a cappella sections, which were a treat. The quiet shimmer of the high strings took my breath away.
The Libera Me was dark and dramatic, a great contrast to the muted pastels of the previous movement. The Dies Irae was suitably strident.
The final movement, In Paradisum, opened with harp and organ, setting the tone of another world. The women came in soon after and it was even more touching. Then oh, the strings! Wow. The final chord progressions were striking and original but so RIGHT.
Here's a recording of the group doing the last two movements. In the picture they have on YouTube, G. Jan Jones (one of the Voices family who recently died) is in the middle row on the far left. Such a wonderful man.