I heard Voices of Ascension on 1/24/18, doing the Poulenc *Gloria* and the Honegger *King David.* You know how I love Voices, they are extraordinary, easily the most beautiful choral singing I've heard in my life. And their artistic director and conductor, Dennis Keene, is a master at programming.
They did the Poulenc with organ - - Renée Anne Louprette played gloriously, she had just the right touch for this music. Lush or tart, cool or warm, Poulenc writes very colorful music and Louprette nailed it. My favorite moment of the performance was a brief a cappella alto section solo in the "Laudamus te," followed by a spooky organ solo. It was haunting and powerful, it really came out of the texture in the most thrilling way.
Vanessa Vasquez was the soprano soloist. I'd heard her with Voices before, she has a gorgeous voice. She was one of the winners of the Met auditions last year, so she's well on her way to a big career. But her singing bothered me in this piece. The template was set in her first few phrases. The "Domine Deus" is in B minor, and the soprano solo starts the first two phrases on an F sharp at the top of the staff, a high-ish note. Every time Vasquez sang that note, she approached it from below, giving it a sort of pop bloom. This happened over and over again, it sounded less like a choice and more like a mannerism. I'm all for a little scooping and sliding, but it has to be done with taste, and sparingly. This works better in Verdi and Puccini (which it appears are her standard rep) but it ain't good for Poulenc.
I'd heard the Poulenc probably three or four times, I've always loved that piece. The other piece on the program was new to me, Honegger's *King David.* They performed it in English in Honegger's original, peculiar orchestration - - Dennis's program notes said that he was brought in to write the piece on very short notice, and the 16-part orchestra had already been chosen. It's a very French mix of woodwinds, brass, percussion, and hell, let's throw in a bass fiddle, why not.
The music was wonderfully overt. It had strong Hollywood vibe, it sounded like the score to the greatest movie Maria Montez ever made. I kept waiting for her to come onstage looking for the cobra jewel.
Vasquez was back in this piece, and though she sounded beautiful, she wasn't really singing with conviction. The tenor, Ian Koziara, was full of conviction, he really sang it like he meant it. Lovely voice, strong, warm, and secure. Contralto Heather Petrie didn't have much to do, but did it beautifully.
F. Murray Abraham was the narrator, and what a treat to see him in this. He spoke the text with authority and flavor but never with unneeded drama. The highlight of his performance, for me, was watching him watch the chorus during their last angelic number - - he looked at them with wonder, warmth, and awe. It was very touching.
Angelina Impellizzeri had the other speaking role, a brief scene for the Witch of Endor. My mouth was hanging open throughout her scene, it was so far over the top we could no longer see the top. She totally delivered all of the drama, and she has an impressive list of credits, but I would have loved to have seen Catherine Malfitano or Maria Ewing in this role, or some other Salome of the 1990s who's no longer singing much. THAT would have been beyond.
The piece ends with a big, overblown rising-to-heaven finale. Gounod does something similar in the finale of *Faust,* but compared to *King David,* Gounod sounds like a Bach chorale. Honegger didn't write cheesy, third-rate camp - - this is HIGH camp, camp of the highest order. This isn't designer impostor perfume, this is <<la vraie chose,>> Giorgio in the yellow and white striped box!