I heard VOCES8 in an online concert on 8/8/20 (it had been live on 8/1/20). They organized an online vocal ensemble concert series based in London and I decided to subscribe. I'd heard of VOCES8 but had never heard them before, so I was intrigued.
They opened with “Drop, Drop Slow Tears,” a lovely piece by the English Renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons, followed by “The Deer’s Cry” by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Both of these pieces showed off the luscious, classically British sound of the octet, somehow both chilly and warm. Their stage deportment was of a piece with their sound, proper yet expressive, with sometimes the faint suggestion of a smile at the lips. Here they are doing the Gibbons:
Next they did three of the six *Songs of Farewell* by C. Hubert Parry. Such fascinating music, rather old fashioned but full of little surprises. They had just the right sincerity and ardor to bring them to life. I have to say that in the final piece by Parry I ran into the problem you sometimes have in an online performance - - it was the apex of a phrase near the end of the piece and the signal got interrupted and I had that aggravating swirling thing going on. A live performance in a concert hall has its own pitfalls and shortcomings, but this isn’t one of them.
They did a piece that they had commissioned by Jonathan Dove, who had been their composer-in-residence. They preceded it with one verse of “Be Still My Soul,” aka “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius. They sounded like the greatest church choir on earth! The Dove was fascinating, the high point of the concert. I could tell that Dove had worked with the group very closely, the piece was so clearly tailored to their sound and their abilities. It was somewhat static but also always moving forward, with a relentless journey to the finish. It was exciting.
Each set was introduced by a singer in the group, and the Monteverdi was introduced by the group’s counter tenor. He said that those six pieces were “probably among the most overtly expressive” things that they do. That intrigued me, an English vocal group doing something overtly expressive! Stop the freakin’ presses. Monteverdi was working for the Duke of Mantua at the time and one of the star singers in his ensemble died of smallpox. The Duke commissioned Monteverdi to write a set of pieces in her memory. They were sung by five of the eight members of VOCES8, a soprano, the counter tenor, one of the tenors, and the two basses. They sang the pieces with an urgent sense of drama and they really leaned into the daring harmonies.
The final set opened with a world premiere, commissioned by VOCES8, “An Elemental Elegy,” Mårten Jansson. It was beautiful but maybe a little aimless, and I wasn’t won over by the theme of climate change. You don’t get bonus points for writing a piece about climate change, if you’re putting a piece on a program with these other dudes, it has to stand up as music. “Nunc Dimitis” was written by Paul Smith, the brother of the group’s counter tenor. I thought it was classy that he mentioned that, sort of like how the writers in The New Yorker say, “Full disclosure, this guy was a professor of mine in college.” I liked the piece a lot, it had a wonderful flow and had a spectacular, quiet ending. Note to composers: a strong ending goes a long way!
They ended with an arrangement by Stephen Paulus of “The Road Home,” a 19th century Southern hymn tune. Paulus’s arrangement was tasty and tasteful, it didn’t get in the way of the original tune, it was like a lovely setting for a beautiful gemstone.