I heard VOCES8 in a pair of holiday concerts on 12/12/20 (it was posted on 12/5/20). Their guest collaborator was baritone and composer Roderick Williams. Here's a highlight reel of both concerts:
The first concert was by VOCES8, a program of six commissions/world premiere written for them. “Mother’s Song” by Jocelyn Hagen was gentle, lovely, captivating, a nice way to warm up the ear to a concert. Beautifully written for the voices and of course VOCES8 had their marvelous signature “warm yet British” sound. The next piece was “Solstice” by Taylor Scott Davis, which had a similar gentle vibe but more inventive textures and more harmonic and dynamic complexity than the Hagen, a thoughtful progression.
Williams joined the group as featured soloist for the next piece, “Let’s Walk Together” by Paul Smith. It showed off not just Williams but many of the ensemble members as soloists, that was a treat. The piece was beautiful but not as interesting or distinctive as the other pieces on the program. It was interesting hearing the difference between Williams’s singing and the singing of the other ensemble members: clearly Williams is a soloist and not a member of an ensemble, his singing had greater vibrancy and presence than the members of VOCES8.
Williams introduced the piece that he wrote for the concert, “Now Winter Nights.” It was written precisely for the Christmas season of 2020, capping off a very difficult year. You’d think that would make it a dark and dreary piece, but not at all - - it was infused with warmth and intimacy. Maybe because Christmas will have an extra impact this year for many of us, maybe because he wrote it as a love letter to his life? It was gorgeous.
“Halcyon Days” by Melissa Dunphy was another pretty-but-not-exactly-earth-shattering piece, which made me think of a review of *Chicago,* The reviewer said that every number in the show is a show-stopping number, whether or not the show needs to be stopped. Ha!
Williams was back for the final piece, “Descend to Earth” by Ken Burton. It had a rhythmic vitality that hadn’t been in the other pieces, which made it a perfect closer.
The second concert started with a performance a German quartet called The German Gents. They had a lovely sound and they were so damn cute! Probably an average age of 23. They sang a German song and then a cute arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” Their English wasn’t exactly idiomatic: “jingle” often had a soft G rather than a hard G. This only added to their cuteness.
Next was a performance by The Aeolians, a college choir from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. They were introduced by their conductor, Jason Max Ferdinand. He talked about the challenges of singing wearing masks (not the easiest thing, I’m told). They opened with a lovey arrangement of “Silent Night” by Dan Forrest. The arrangement put this familiar jewel in a new setting. The VOCES8 concerts have typically been for a cappella groups, so it was a nice change to hear a concert with a small orchestra. The group had the sound you often hear from a great college choir: polished and expertly put together, but with that extra element of excitement that you get from a group of young people, which you rarely get from a group of older singers (and when I say “older,” I mean over 25). On a side note, I sang in a college choir for six years and I can’t even imagine the thrill of singing in an international concert series…
Here's a video of them singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," back in 2017 when they were able to sit next to each other without wearing masks:
The next piece was “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Cedric Dent. This was a new piece for Christmas, it had no similarity to the “fleece was white as snow” version that we all know. It was sweet. “Nowhere To Lay His Head” was powerful, with a killer solo by Roderick George. They did a lovely arrangement (by Darmon Meader) of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” one of my favorite Christmas carols. It had a quiet, surprising ending.
Wayne Bucknor, pianist for the group since 1989, played his own splashy solo piano arrangement of “We Three Kings.” Was it a Rachmaninoff influence I was hearing? Whatever it was, it was fabulous! He introduced the piece by saying that he imagined the three kings followed the star, knowing they were going to greet a royal baby. I’ll intersperse Bucknor’s telling of the story with my own invented bits of dialogue. They arrived at the barn (“Is this really what was on the GPS?”), were probably surprised to see a baby lying in a manger (“Um, for REAL?”), but still knelt down in front of him, knowing that he was indeed a very special baby.
Gospel singer Tiffany Richter joined the group for the spiritual “Mary Had a Baby.” Wonderful voice and clearly it comes from a deep place for her. She straddled the border between preaching your personal belief and puttin’ on a SHOW.
The concert ended with an arrangement of “Joy the World” by Camp Kirkland. Emphasis on the CAMP! Here’s a charmingly roughshod performance of the piece by the Calvary Lutheran Church choir in Golden Valley, Minnesota:
I have a suspicion that this arrangement was done by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in one of their PBS Christmas concerts (check your local listings, Kelli O’Hara will be singing that concert next week).