Virginia Chorale: To Touch the Sky
First Presbyterian Church Virginia Beach, October 14, 2017
Review by John Campbell

Charles Woodward led an a capella adventure as the Virginia Chorale journeyed out of this world To Touch the Sky, the opening program of their 34th season offering music to celebrate the centennial of the NASA Langley Research Center. The Chorale's 24 voices sang seven compositions related to flying, the heavens, galaxies and space flight to encourage the audience to soar beyond the madness of this passing moment in time and help us to remember that in deep space there is profound silence.

The opening piece was Observer in the Magellanic Cloud by Mason Bates (b. 1977) who grew up in Richmond, Virginia and now lives in California with his wife and two children. Commissioned by the San Francisco male chorus Chanticleer, the piece captures a futuristic snapshot of of two distant worlds briefly passing each other in celestial alignment. In the spoken introduction we were introduced to the musical language of a satellite and Maori tribesmen. In the far distant future a lost satellite floats inside the Magellanic Cloud (a group of dwarf galaxies) where it picks-up light from earth's distant past. The Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, chant toward the stars: “Magellenic Cloud, sacred one mounting the heavens, cause all our new year's growth to flourish.” It was a spectacular experience of deep voices with a lighter flow above. Lyrical and strange, it carried us into a wider, open universe.

Back to earth, we heard music by William Harris who lived in London from 1883-1973, entered the Royal College of Music at age 16 and later taught organ harmony there. His compositions remain firmly in the conservative Anglican tradition. His best work, the double choir motet Faire is the Heaven (Edmund Spencer) (1945) has a spaciousness of conception and richness of sound. It opens with gentle singing presenting the concept that God is a Person beyond description in his endless Perfection. As the choirs repeat these overlapping lines they achieved a lovely cantabile flow.

The next selection brought old and new music together in Island in Space by Kirk Mechem (b. 1925) which opened with Dona nobis pacem. After astronauts had their first look at the earth from space, astronaut Russell Schweickart (b. 1935) spoke of the earth as a whole— “so beautiful, so small and so fragile.” The men sing the text with the women adding vocal flourishes. The second text by poet Achibald MacLeish (1892-1982) makes the point that we are all riders on the earth together—brothers—and the voices all together blossom into a lovely “Dona nobis pacem” to end.

Victorian composer Charles Villiers Stanford's (1852-1924) The Blue Bird offers an ethereal vocalise opening out of which emerges a precise text by Mary Coleridge, about a blue lake and a pastel blue bird in a blue sky as a transcendent moment in time!

The ethereal vocals continued in Stars by Eriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) but this time several chorus members held partially filled wine glasses and one Tibetan singing bowl played by Bryson Mortensen. Moistened fingers circling the edges made the glasses sing. It is as if from the quiet, cold emptiness of space emerged the richest sound imaginable. Sarah Teasdale's poem tells of an evening of being alone on a dark hill looking up to the stars “myriad with beating Hearts of fire” and feeling honored to witness such majesty.

The first part concluded with High Flight, an experimental piece by British composer Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) who conducted the Wesleyan Festival Chorus at Christ and St. Luke's in August, 2014. Overlapping lines of single words created a hubbub out of which came the sung text, prominent in the continuous mix of hot, quick vocals in a rush of words. The poem, written by John Gillespie Magee, a WWI Spitfire pilot shares the exhilarating experience of flight in an open, light aircraft. Sarah Taylor, Bonnie Lambert-Baxter, Scott M. Crissman, Max Holman, Bryson Mortensen and John Irving were featured in this complex musical tapestry.

The entire second half was a single work, To Touch the Sky, by American composer Kevin Puts (b. 1972) with soprano Kimberly Nickerson the featured soloist. Puts set nine poems by women writers to explore the “eternal feminine” in this, his first mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus. Annunciation (Marie Howe) opens with the women singing out and then pulling back in the opening Latin “Magnificat” before Ms. Nickerson gave the text of Mary's personal response to bearing God's Son. The flash of light that illuminates her inner self shows her full of wonder, ecstasy and questioning humility “...only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I'd die from being loved like that.”

Unbreakable (Mirabai), was sung by the men using vocal slides and rapidly shifting tonal centers to demonstrate that the 16th century Indian poet's binding love for God cannot be broken. The women return in The Fruit of Silence (Mother Teresa) in sound as complex as a raucous Balinese monkey chant singing of peace, love, prayer and service. The contrasting setting of Falling Snow (Amy Lowell) was gentle, leaving a deep impression of life's impermanence.

The midpoint of the arc of the nine-song work, At Castle Wood (Emily Brontë), is bleak. The men open: “The day is done, the winter sun is setting in its sullen sky.” Seeing life unmasked, the women offer melismas of resignation asking no sympathy and no desire “to keep my soul below; My heart is dead in infancy.”

The feeling of gloom continues in Epitaph (Edna St. Vincent Millay). Briefly, the poet says: send no roses, I am dead and cannot see nor smell them. The voices create the busy sound of wind through dry leaves still on trees in Who Has Seen the Wind? (Christina Georgina Rossetti). In what can only be called a lullaby of mortality, With My Two Arms (Sappho)— “I do not aspire to touch the sky”— is built of layers of low voices repeating the poem's twelve words.

The finale, Most Noble Evergreen (Hildegard of Bingen) effectively captures the grandeur of dazzling sunlight on a giant tree suspended in midair but only as a vision beyond human experience. The glorious richness of highest voices was contrasted by deep voices as a sort of round that slowly winds down, only to reappear with great vigor before moving into a relaxed close. It was a profound experience superbly performed by the Virginia Chorale. But the ecstasy of beauty in the music before intermission is what I hold in my heart today as I recall the entire experience.

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