Review: Superlative concert by VOCES8 at the Cathedral Basilica
By George Yeh
This month, a National Endowment for the Arts report noted a general decline in performing arts audience numbers between 2017 and 2022, a time gap which obviously encompasses the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the advent of vaccines and widespread (though not total) adoption, it’s of concern that performing arts audience numbers have not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. One local manifestation of this general situation was the recent announcement by the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis of its cancellation of two productions this season, along with an emergency fund-raising call. In this context, it was heartening to see a large crowd at the Cathedral Basilica this past Friday night (October 20, 2023) for an excellent choral concert by the British vocal ensemble VOCES8, as part of the group’s current 16-concert, 15-city US tour, and the first concert in this season’s Saint Louis Cathedral Concerts series. St. Louis marked the 7th concert, and the 6th city (New York City – of course – got two concerts) of their tour, which also marked their return to St. Louis after their previous appearance in February 2020, with the Crossroads vocal quartet. This time, however, it was just VOCES8 on their own.
While this writer missed VOCES8’s previous St. Louis concert, it’s easy to infer that their earlier experience informed their choice of repertoire for this concert, if for no other reason than to accommodate the reverberation time of the Cathedral Basilica’s acoustic, well over 5 seconds, that generally swallows texts whole, unless you’re seated 50 feet from the artists. The concert began in an upbeat, spirited mood, with a Latin setting of Psalm 118:24, ‘Haec dies’ (‘This is the day’), by William Byrd (d. 1623 – his birth year is ambiguous), in remembrance of the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death. After the Byrd selection, baritone Christopher Moore provided the audience with informative comments about the work, including reciting an English translation of the text (“This is the day the Lord has made / Let us rejoice and be glad”).
It took a moment to register that the program booklet omitted the sung texts. The reason why soon emerged. Following his William Byrd-themed remarks, Mr. Moore introduced the next two selections, ‘Denn er hat sein Engeln’ (‘For he shall give his angels’, from the oratorio “Elijah” by Felix Mendelssohn [1809-1847]), and a setting of “Nunc dimittis” (“Now thou let depart”, from the Gospel of Luke) by Paul Smith (born 1981, and a co-founder of VOCES8 who still works with the group on its administrative side), again with informative comments about each selection and summaries of each text. The strategy became apparent: namely, giving the audience the gist of the texts just before the music freed the audience from the need to try to follow the texts word-for-word. Or in other words, these summaries gave the audience the spirit of the text, while the musicians attended to the letter of both the text and the music. This paid dividends wonderfully on several levels, with tremendously palpable silence and focus from the audience, without the sound of turning pages or other similar sonic disruptions (besides one unknown object hitting the floor at one point). Even more happily, at least to my ear, no cell phones went off during the concert.
Over the course of the concert, three other members of the group, baritone Euan Williamson, countertenor Barnaby Smith (VOCES8’s other co-founder, and brother of Paul Smith), and soprano Molly Noon, also took up spoken program notes duties. Another point during those spoken introductions was that each singer mentioned that the group intended certain pairs or trios of selections to be sung as ‘sets’, with the audience holding its reaction until the end of each set. For this ‘set’ of Mendelssohn and Paul Smith, the mood became much more contemplative and quieter, and in the case of the Paul Smith selection, quite notably slower in tempo as well.
That mood generally continued, with a few twists of volume, in the next set of three selections, “Drop, drop, slow tears” by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), the movement ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (‘Hail, O VIrgin’) from the “All-Night Vigil” by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943, an obvious 150th birth anniversary tribute), and “Let My Love Be Heard” by Jake Runestad (born 1986), an American composer based in Minneapolis. This order differed from the original order in the printed program of Runestad, Gibbons, Rachmaninov. Gibbons’ setting of a text by Phineas Fletcher took the contemplative mood of the first ‘set’ to an even greater level of restraint and understatement, very well done indeed. The Rachmaninov, a hymn in praise of the Virgin Mary, continued the mood and tempo of the Gibbons, but very effectively worked in a crescendo to alter the mood. The Runestad, a setting of Alfred Noyes’ text “A Prayer”, featured its own nice crescendo, if in a work that felt drawn-out and over-long to my taste.
The first half closed with another two-work “set” in a more outgoing and extrovert spirit, a setting by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1545-1611) of the Marian anthem “Regina Caeli” (“Queen of Heaven”), followed by Gibbons’ “O clap your hands”, a setting of text from Psalm 47. For the Victoria, the group rearranged themselves into two opposing “semi-choirs” of four, with two high voices and two low voices. For the Gibbons, the group then reverted to its concert-opening formation, with the ladies’ voices stage-right / house-left, with soprano Andrea Haines as stage-right anchorwoman to Ms. Noon’s right, and mezzo-soprano Katie Jeffries-Harris to Ms. Noon’s left, and on the remaining male side opposite, tenor Blake Morgan to Mr. Smith’s left, and bass Dominic Carver stationed between Mr. Williamson and Mr. Moore, the latter as stage-left anchorman.
VOCES8 stayed on home ground for its first selection in the second half, three of the six “Songs of Farewell” by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918). The selections were the first song, ‘My soul, there is a country’ (text by Henry Vaughan), the third song, ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ (text by Thomas Campion; the program booklet erroneously stated “whether”), and the fourth song, ‘There is an old belief’ (text by John Gibson Lockhart). These songs were clearly a set, but to maintain consistency through the concert, the group asked for no applause during this Parry ‘set’, which the audience honored, as they did all through the evening. These selections are moderate in tempo, but differ from the more overtly religious texts sung elsewhere in that Parry’s music has a different series of emotions than open religious devotion, more of a sense of warm-heartedness, perhaps also of a sort of radiant contentment in making peace with one’s lot, even if the years of their composition, 1914-1915, were hardly a time of contentment for Britain or continental Europe, to understate matters. The next work was the motet ‘Adoramus te, Christe’ (‘We adore you, Christ’) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), which changed the mood again to a more subdued and reflective state.
After the Monteverdi, VOCES8 went populist, at least in terms of YouTube click stats, with a choral version of the ‘Nimrod’ variation from the “Enigma Variations” of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), where arranger John Cameron fit the Catholic Mass text of ‘Lux Aeterna’ (‘Eternal light’) to the music. By historical happenstance, the ‘Nimrod’ variation has a place in British culture comparable to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in American culture, as the main work of classical music that gets trotted out for somber national moments and occasions, even though neither composer ever intended his respective composition as such. Speaking only for myself, the choral treatment of the Elgar borderline-turns the music into sentimental bathos, which is the last thing that the work is. However, as happens in popular culture, ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’. So my personal opinion on the idea of this arrangement is no reflection on the group, or its very fine performance at this concert.
Perhaps in wry acknowledgement afterwards, Mr. Smith drolly then asked: “How do you follow that?” His answer was equally droll: “Ask Andrea to sing a little higher.” This wasn’t completely a jest, because the last work on the printed program was “Miserere, Mei Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O Lord”) of Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). Known colloquially as “Allegri’s ‘Miserere’”, it is celebrated for its top C notes, sung either by a soprano or a young treble, a task assigned here to Ms. Haines. For the Allegri, the group again divided into two subgroups of 4, with the subgroup that included Ms. Haines quietly (within the limits of heels and dress shoes on marble) walking off-stage-right three times during the work to sing the sections with those top C’s. From the on-stage group, Mr. Williamson sang solo as the off-stage group headed off stage-right, which gave the latter time to reach their post. Ms. Haines hit those top C’s very nicely, perhaps with the slightest dollop of vocal portamento as lead-in, which only a select few in the audience would have noted.
Before the Allegri (and perhaps also to allow everyone to rest and prepare for the Allegri), Mr. Smith also spoke about the group’s education and outreach activities, as well as its foundation, not least the latter’s American wing. As well, he mentioned community work with local choirs before this concert, and also that a new VOCES8 educational “hub” is to be set up in St. Louis, to audience delight. Following the Allegri, as its encore, VOCES8 sang another William Byrd selection, a setting of the Eucharist text “Ave verum”, or “Ave verum corpus” (“Hail, true body”), where the group dared to sing very quietly indeed. This selection neatly closed the circle, ending very thoughtfully with the composer whose music had begun the program.
A friend in attendance at this concert described the layout and design of this concert as “perfect”, a very apt description. The musicianship of VOCES8 was absolutely splendid throughout. VOCES8 superbly paced and placed the selections, and obviously worked within the challenges of the Cathedral Basilica’s acoustic to the group’s best advantage. Presumably the musicians saw the crowd size, where the audience spilled over into each transept, and that must have felt satisfying to them. The audience size also helped to mitigate the reverberation to a modest degree, along with their intense focus. It’s evident that VOCES8 have made new friends with this concert, and presumably their community and educational work in their short visit here. The establishment of a new local VOCES8 “hub” would also seem to foreshadow a return visit from the group in a few years.
In the St. Louis region, Saint Louis Cathedral Concerts is one of a select few groups that host touring classical music performers, alongside other series like Washington University’s Great Artists Series and St. Louis Classical Guitar. VOCES8 have set the bar for visiting ensembles very high indeed with this fantastic concert, a very tough act to follow.