Richard and I attended a gala celebrating the 30thanniversary of Voices of Ascension on 11/17/20. I’ve loved Voices until right after I moved to New York in 2002. My dear friend Susie was the first friend I made when I moved to New York - - our mutual friend Bill Farlow introduced us (Bill was a friend of Susie’s from college, I met Bill when he became director of University Opera in Madison a few years before I left town). Susie and I had dinner a few weeks after I got to town and a few weeks later she took me to my first Voices concert. She’s a sometime singer in the group, a good friend to their artistic director, Dennis Keene, and their Choral Personnel Manager. I was instantly amazed by the sound of the group, they’re definitely the best choral group I’ve ever heard.
The gala opened with a recording of Voices singing “Sicut cervus” and “Exaltabo te” by Palestrina, a perfect display of their warm but crystal-clear sound. I’ve often said they are “the sound of holiness,” and this recording was a glorious example of that. The opening set concluded with “I Was Glad” by Parry, a fabulous High English church anthem with a glamorous organ part. And timpani, in case you needed a little extra encouragement. And who doesn’t? Here's a recording of Voices doing the piece - - that's my dear Susie in the back row, with her head between the candlesticks:
The opening remarks were made by Ellliott Forrest of WQXR. He introduced Dennis and Liz Norman, Artistic Director and Executive Director of Voices of Ascension. They raised a glass of bubbly to each other (via video, natch) to celebrate the 30thanniversary of Voices. Liz said, “Dennis, you must have been very young…?” Dennis said, “Yes, it was my first year at Juilliard.” That got a guffaw out of Richard.
The next piece was a video recording of a movement from the Monteverdi Vespers. Thrilling! There were a few congratulatory videos from members of the classical music community. They showed an interview with Dennis, giving an overview of his career at Ascension.
More congratulatory videos, including one from the great opera singer Susan Graham, who had sung with Voices when she first moved to NYC from Texas. Bless her heart! The next performance was “Sanctus” by Duruflé, probably the central composer of the Voices repertoire. It was gorgeous, of course, and the video production, with the individual singers floating in a starry sky in individual bubbles - - what else can I say, it was a little campy!
One of their frequent young soloists, Vanessa Vasquez, sang a Strauss song, “Ständchen,” luscious singing, full of sensitivity and thrust.
Next they gave a sneak preview of *Astronautica,* a piece that will soon be premiered by Voices. The words of 16 female astronauts have been set by 9 female composers. The excerpt we saw was a text by Kalpana Chawla set to music by Kamala Sankaram, sung a cappella by Lindsay Kesselman, Hai-Ting Chinn, and Kirsten Sollek. It was stunning, thrilling music, the highlight of the gala. I CAN’T WAIT for the premiere.
They ended with a recording of the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s B Minor Mass. The video clip opened with Dennis walking into the empty sanctuary of the Church of the Ascension. He started to conduct and the singers and instruments magically appeared in bubbles around him. Similar to the Duruflé moment we had earlier, only it wasn’t campy, it was sublime!