I heard VOCES8 in an online concert on 9/7/20 (it was live on 9/5/20). It was part of the Live From London series, which they created for the pandemic. Notably, they were the only group to have two appearances in the series… Why not?
They opened with a set of choral pieces from *Gloriana* by Benjamin Britten. It’s an opera about Elizabeth I commissioned to be part of the festivities for the coronation of Elizabeth II. I was supposed to have seen a concert performance of the opera in Boston in April, starring the one and only Anna Caterina Antonacci, but this whole virus business got in the way of that plan. VOCES8 sang the pieces with their wholly appropriate English choral style. Best of all their sound is so clean and pure, it really made Britten’s counterpoint and dissonances come to life and glow.
“Straighten Up and Fly Right” was cute but had a strong element of slumming, or to be precise, what I call Whitey Goes Ethnic. Worst of all, their presentational style was falsely performative and cheesy. If they had sung it straight without all the cutesie poo crap piled on top of it, it would have been better. Here they are doing the song in Kalamazoo:
I feel like I told this story in a review recently, but I remember seeing Al Jarreau on Regis and Kathie Lee back in the day. He was playing Teen Angel in *Grease* on Broadway, he was plugging that show. He did a snippet from a song in the show as a rap, which was a big hit with the audience. He asked Kathie Lee to rap, and got the audience to chant “KATHIE LEE RAP! KATHIE LEE RAP!” She silenced them and said, “Half of knowing what you do well is knowing what you DON’T do well. I. Do. Not. Rap.” I think VOCES8 should leave the show choir arrangements to other groups, or do them as an encore on the road, in the provinces.
The next piece was “Love Endureth” by Roxanna Panufnik, their current composer in residence. It started very strong, it sounded like the kind of thing that could be sung very effectively by many talented choirs and small ensembles. Then it went a little askew in the next section and I was thrown a bit - - but then I realized that it was deliberate, she was tossing and turning so the Lord’s steadfast love could endureth forever. I was won over. It closed with one of my favorite elements, what I call a “far-out chord,” a dissonant chord that feels strange but somehow makes sense.
“As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending” was the highlight of the program, and showed that they have much more snap, sparkle, and groove in an Elizabethan madrigal than they ever will have in a 20th century pop song. Here's the group doing it in a previous performance:
“Underneath the Stars” was a nice surprise. I was skeptical at first, it seemed like it was going to be more of them doing pop music in a coy and cloying way. But no, they sang it with an honest pop style and without any of the gooey staging that they used in “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” That and “Caledonia” made a nice quiet warm spot in the program, it was a welcome change of color.
“Moondance” was another surprise. On a certain level it had the cheesy business that drives me around the bend, but on another level it was hilarious. I’m not sure if they were consciously overdoing it but it seemed like they were a parody of a rooty poo English vocal ensemble doing an American pop song. In any case, it worked. “Sway” was an even bigger success along those lines because the Latin beat made the whole enterprise even more ridiculous. Even more delightful!
Can we agree that no one ever did this song better than Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado? The whole album is PRICELESS. Keep your ears peeled for Prado's signature yelps (he does one at 1:36).
“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” sat in a middle ground - - it wasn’t delightful but wasn’t repugnant. I was a little alarmed when they announced that their encore was "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Aint' Got That Swing." Often when a classical group does this song they underline the truth of the title, but VOCES8 brought to it their own brand of swing and it worked. Maybe the key is to not WATCH them - - I was listening to their performance while putting the finishing touches on my review/post, and at the few moments when I switched to the tab on my browser where the concert was happening, and watched their performance, I wished I hadn't.
*Choral Dances* from *Gloriana* by Benjamin Britten
iii. Time and Concord
iv. Country Girls
v. Rustics and Fishermen
vi. Final Dance of Homage
“Straighten Up and Fly Right” by Nat ‘King’ Cole arr. Jim Clements
“Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin arr. Jim Clements
“Love Endureth” by Roxanna Panufnik
“As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending” by Thomas Weelkes
“Dessus le Marché D’Arras” by Orlando di Lasso
“Underneath the Stars” by Kate Rusby arr. Jim Clements
“Caledonia” by Dougie MacLean arr. Blake Morgan
“Moondance” by Van Morrison arr. Alexander L’Estrange
“Sway” by Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz arr. Alexander L’Estrange
“Ain’t that a Kick in the Head” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn arr. Jim Clements