VocalEssence concluded their American Masterpieces tour (a season-long series of concerts and educational programs throughout the Midwest) last night in Stillwater at Trinity Lutheran Church with a program called A Slice of Americana. The concert and tour were part of a wider National Endowment for the Arts initiative designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and works.
A note from NEA Chairman Dana Gioia applauding VocalEssence artistic director and founder Philip Brunelle for his national leadership of the choral component of this endeavor read, “Not only do we want more Americans to hear this great music, we want to cultivate a love and appreciation for it for future generations.”
Knowing this intention, I listened to the concert with perhaps a different filter than I would have had the concert been conceived as a sampler rather than a cross-section, and found myself pondering, what defines “Americana?” And whose Americana is it?
The first half of the concert was dedicated to “classical” American choral repertoire (perhaps choral art music would be a better way to describe it) and showed the group’s strengths to great effect–the sense of ensemble and highly polished details, diction so impeccable you don’t really need to follow the lyrics in the program, and the expert attention to the text that brings the music to life. Oh, and the chocolaty warmth of the bass section. That especially.
The opening selection, “O Praise the Lord of Heaven,” written by William Billings in 1794, was the only work on this half composed before I graduated from high school. The rest, while a very small sliver of our American choral pie, shows that modern American composers still are still making discoveries in choral music as they keenly explore the delta of music and language in rangy and highly individual ways.
Works by Twin Cities composers Stephen Paulus and Libby Larsen were placed alongside those of William Bolcom and Aaron Jay Kernis, but the two standouts for me were the lesser-known composers. Brent Michael Davids’ evocative “Zuni Sunrise Song” featured bird whistles handcrafted by the composer and spun by the singers, percussive and dancelike chanting by the men, and nasal incantations by the women. Unfortunately, the poetry was not listed in the program, but the work draws on a Native American song about the dawn. Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night,” which sets an English translation of an Octavio Paz poem, was musically as sensual as the text. Whenever I hear a Whitacre piece on a program, I kind of wonder why anyone ever programs anything else. He simply has a knack for setting gorgeous texts gorgeously.
The “intermission” of the seventy-five-minute concert was more of a break for the singers, who needed it more than the audience, was a treat: Charles Kemper played Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and made it sound like Chopin. (Or perhaps Chopin with a martini.)
Brunelle introduced the second half, which was all folk songs and spirituals, to the mostly gray-haired audience, with a story about a high school choral conductor he met who didn’t know the folk songs on the program. He argued that this was our shared cultural heritage to celebrate and pass on to the next generation. This statement provided a lively debate with my concert buddy, who didn’t know the songs either, on the ride home. (He pointed out that if he was supposed to get to know them by coming to the concert, it would have been helpful to have the lyrics in the program.)
While VocalEssence sang arrangements of “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?,” “Gentle Annie,” “Black is the Color,” “Cool Water,” and “Skip to My Lou,” I tried to determine, other than learning them in school, whether folk songs really played into my understanding of myself as an American. As much as I enjoy their nostalgic beauty, I couldn’t persuade myself that nineteenth-century American folk songs are relevant to my generation. We simply don’t sing them.
However, you can only appreciate your musical heritage if you are given the opportunity to hear it. Whether these tunes are masterpieces that will live on for generations is a matter of opinion and posterity, but Brunelle and VocalEssence gave us a wonderfully performed taste.