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Vocal Arts Ensemble is Silver

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Mar 1, 2005 - 5:53:35 PM in reviews_2005

first published in The Cincinnati Post Feb. 28, 2005)

Vocal music has been called the first art.

If so, Cincinnati has been putting first things first for many years.

Two of Cincinnati’s finest vocal groups – the Vocal Arts Ensemble and the Cincinnati Boychoir - got together Sunday afternoon at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Montgomery to celebrate a combined 60 years of singing for the Queen City.

The VAE is 25 years old this season. For the past 17, the all-professional group has been led by music director Earl Rivers, head of ensembles and conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The Cincinnati Boychoir, led by director Randall Wolfe, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Weighing in on the celebration was a voice from the past, William Shakespeare.

Music inspired by The Bard comprised the first half of the program, with selections by Chicago composer Gary Fry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, jazz great George Shearing and "Wms. Ghosts," a world premiere composed for the VAE’s silver anniversary by CCM dean Douglas Lowry.

Lowry’s nine-minute work, for a capella choir and violin, summons ghosts from Shakespeare’s plays ("Hamlet," "Richard III"), spectral images from his life and fragments of liturgical texts in a fast-moving, intricately woven haunt. Rivers guided the VAE expertly through its shifting shadows. The ghosts are heard mostly in whispers interlaced with sections of the Protestant Doxology, the Requiem and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The music swells into full, consonant harmonies on "habeas requiem" ("may you have eternal rest") and a big climax on Richard’s "I did but dream," before returning to whispered/sung shards (Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway) and the hymn-like epitaph from his tomb, rendered more plaintive by Liviu Dobrota’s violin.

Vaughan Williams’ "Three Shakespearean Songs" showed off the 24-voice VAE at its colorful, expressive best, with bell-like tones in "Full Fathom Five" ("The Tempest") and a fittingly airy "Over Hill, Over Dale" ("A Midsummer Night’s Dream"). Shearing’s light jazz settings, with pianist Matthew Phelps and bassist Michael Priester, were groovy to the last "hey noni no" ("It Was a Lover and His Lass" from "As You Like It").

VAE singers produced the sounds of the wind in Eric Whitacre’s inventive "Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine." And recalling the first VAE concert at the Emery Theater in 1979 (led by founder Elmer Thomas), Rivers led a lush, spirited performance of Brahms’ "Neue Liebeslieder" Waltzes, accompanied by Phelps and Scott Bussa on piano four-hands. Particularly lovely was "Weiche Gräser im Revier" ("Soft grass in my favorite haunts").

The 34-strong Boychoir showed off their agile young voices in a set of their own. Phelps, an alumnus of the group, led them in "Alleluia" by Charles Callahan and "Escondido," a lively Argentinian folk song. Wolfe had the boys clapping in the final verse of Rollo Dilworth’s "No Rocks A-Cryin’."

The two choirs brought the crowd to their feet with a joyful, massed "I will sing unto the Lord" by Canadian composer Imant Raminsh.