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Reviews

24 Jul 2019

The VOCES8 Foundation is launched at St Anne & St Agnes

Where might you hear medieval monophony by the late 12th-century French composer Pérotin, Renaissance polyphony by William Byrd, a vocal arrangement of the stirring theme from Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia, alongside a newly commissioned work, ‘Vertue’ (2019) by Jonathan Dove, followed by an arrangement of the Irish folksong ‘Danny Boy’ and a snappy rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘One Note Samba’ arr. for eight voices by Naomi Crellin, all within 90 minutes?

The VOCES8 Foundation is launched at the Gresham Centre.

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: VOCES8

 

At a concert by VOCES8 and Apollo5, is the answer. Diversity, together with vocal discipline and strong musical direction were the touchstones of the performance I attended at the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne & St Agnes in the City of London earlier this month, where long-standing supporters of the two vocal ensembles gathered with new audience members to mark the renaming of the VCM Foundation as the VOCES8 Foundation.

VOCES8 was founded by brothers Paul and Barnaby Smith in 2005, and the following year the music charity VCM Foundation was established to develop the ensemble’s music education and outreach programmes which today reach up to 40,000 people a year.

Initiatives include an annual programme of workshops and masterclasses at the Foundation’s home at the VOCES8 Centre; the VOCES8 Scholars programme, set up in 2015, which offers eight choral scholarships to young singers providing valuable experience and contacts as they commence their professional careers; and the unique teaching tool The VOCES8 Method, developed by Paul Smith, which adopts music to enhance development in numeracy, literacy and linguistics and is available in four languages.

VOCES8 don’t rest on their laurels either. 2017 saw the launch of the US Scholars Programme. The ensemble is the Associate Ensemble for Cambridge University and delivers a Masters programme in choral studies at the university. They are also official Ambassadors for Edition Peters, who published the VOCES8 method and this season the ensemble became Ambassador for the Tido App, an inspirational resource and learning tool created by Edition Peters.

This summer VOCES8 are the resident ensemble at the Milton Abbey International Music Festival, where they will deliver the VOCES8 Summer School in conjunction with the Festival. Now these activities, along with the work of the sister group Apollo5 and VOCES8 Records, will be brought together under a single unifying banner, the VOCES8 Foundation.

When I heard VOCES8 perform alongside Rachel Podger at King’s Place in March 2018 I remarked they ‘were notable for their unblemished blending, pure tone, true intonation and shapely phrasing - and, notably, their confident execution under the unobtrusive direction of countertenor Barnaby Smith’ and that they were equally accomplished in stylistically diverse idioms and genres. So, I was looking forward to this celebration of the 2018-19 season at the VOCES8 Centre, with performances of some of the works that have been highlights of the past year.

First, though, Apollo5 made the mystical strains of Pérotin’s Beata Viscera resonate transcendently across and around the Church of St Anne & St Agnes. It was wonderful to hear the blended sound unfold in Byrd’s own setting of the Communion motet for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the steady uniformity of Byrd’s setting was animated with the spirit of belief, before an expansive and confident Alleluia. Apollo5 also performed ‘Wishes’ by Fraser Wilson, a mellifluous composition in which the even-paced wandering of folk-like melody was supported by a smooth cushion occasionally made piquant by text-illuminating harmonic twists.

Wishes’ is included on Apollo5’s recently released CD, O Radiant Dawn , along with Wilson’s arrangements of traditional songs, ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘The Skye Boat Song’. There’s also a folk arrangement by another contemporary choral conductor, Alexander Levine, of a traditional Russian song, ‘Oh, You Wide Steppe’ which was also performed at St Anne & St Agnes. The sustained tones of the opening are haunting, but the rich blossoming of subsequent verses brings a frisson of passion for the homeland and the free flowing River Volga. It’s a striking conclusion to the disc.

O Radiant Dawn comprises characteristically eclectic repertoire: from Thomas Morley’s ‘I Love, Alas, I Love Thee’ to Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘The Call’ (arr. Harry D Bennett), from Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ to the album’s eponymous motet by James MacMillan. The rhythmic precision and the concordance of tuning and phrasing of the four-part homophony in the latter is superb, and the delicate, rising and falling thirds for soprano and alto in the central episode are no less carefully placed. The performance conveys both the joy of the new day and a hint of man’s vulnerability before the glory of God.

The Elizabethan madrigals seem to my ear more successful than the polyphony of Byrd; in Orlando Gibbons’s ‘The Silver Swan’ - taken here at quite a slow, reflective pace which makes those dark, desirous chromaticisms all the more deliciously telling - the ensemble seem to respond instinctively to the text and craft a sure overall structure. The same is true of Monteverdi’s madrigal (from the Fourth Book) in which the declamatory style is imbued with energy which pushes towards the musical conceits delineating the vivid images of Rinuccini’s text.

The CD liner booklet includes texts and translations, although the singers from the group (Penelope Appleyard and Clare Stewart (sopranos), Joshua Cooter and Oli Martin-Smith (tenors) and Greg Link (bass) who perform solos within particular items are not identified, and nor are there explanatory notes. The sound is resonant and rich. This is an hour’s worth of music of moving luminosity and lyricism: music which, in the ensemble’s own words, reaches for ‘a glimpse of the sublime’.

At the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, Apollo5’s atmospheric performance was followed by a similarly diverse series of items by VOCES8. The rendition of Sibelius’s hymnic ode ‘Be still my soul’ was tremendously impassioned and rich - were there really only eight singers? - while Dove’s setting of George Herbert’s ‘Vertue’ captured the gradual darkening of the poem’s sentiments, as the death that shadows all natural things grows ever more present, only evaded by the virtuous soul which will be made eternal through union with God. The swelling divisi phrases of ‘Let My Love Be Heard’, a setting of a poem by Alfred Noyes by American composer Jake Runestad, offered both a sense of catharsis following grief and softer consolation, while similar certainty and comfort was offered by polyphonic expressions of faith by Thomas Luis de Victoria and Orlando di Lasso.

VOCES8’s ability to switch from one idiom to another in a blink of the eye, and perform anything from motets to the melodies of Broadway which equal accomplishment and stylishness, was demonstrated by their soulful rendition of Joshua Pacey’s arrangement of ‘Danny Boy’ and the cool clarity of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘One Note Samba’ which brought proceedings to a close.

The evening had opened with three compositions by Paul Smith, performed by the VOCES8 Scholars, Apollo5, soloist soprano Clare Stewart and viola player Neil Valentine. These works are included on Smith’s forthcoming debut album, Reflections, which features 2,500 voices from across the globe, from age 8 to 80, personally recorded by Paul on his travels over Asia, Europe, Africa and America during the last decade: ‘the disc moves from plainchant to lullabies, early opera to contemporary choral, inviting the listener on a journey of introspective reflection’.

‘Chant’ began with a searching melody meandering about a sustained tone, the latter expanding slowly into a sound wave punctuated first by Valentine’s quiet but pressing pizzicati (more audible on the recording than live in the church) and then by delicate piano reflections which urge the viola to take flight in a poignant melody. Think Enya meets Keith Jarrett. Very chilled. Smith’s Nunc Dimittis, in contrast, is more Tavener-like in its pulsing chords and registral contrasts, and in its striving towards finely grained, warm, euphonious resolution - with a tinge of tension lingering in the after-silence.

The first performance of Reflections took place at an IMAX cinema in California, at a special event which raised $100,000 for a local music charity. The disc is released by VOCES8 Records on 2nd August 2019.

Claire Seymour

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