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Vocal Arts Ensemble Tells Compelling Christmas Story

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 15, 2014 - 4:06:13 PM in reviews_2014

Francis de Sales Catholic Church, Walnut Hills
Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble offered a unique presentation of the Christmas story Sunday afternoon at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Walnut Hills. Joining them was the Cincinnati Collaborative Ringing Project, which performed on handbells to stirring effect.

Led by VAE assistant conductor Stephanie Nash, the 25-member professional choir explored the themes of Christmas in “through-composed” style, from 13th-century chant to contemporary music. There were only brief pauses between numbers, which followed the Christmas story, from waiting for the Christ Child to humanity’s response.

There were Marian selections, as well as those recalling the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Three Wise Men. Even the lighting in the church commented on the story: The concert began in total darkness (Nash and members of the choir had their own lighting). The house lights came up for “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” which featured alto soloist Lauren McAllister. They grew even brighter for “Savior of the Nations, Come” with soprano Kelly Haney.

The Gothic beauty and welcoming acoustic of historic St. Francis de Sales heightened the impression immeasurably.

To begin the concert, the choir processed down the aisles to the chant “Veni, Veni Emanuel,” which was followed by James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn.” A highlight of the Advent portion was “Tomorrow, I Will Come,” a setting of the seasonal “O Antiphons” by Christopher Aspass. The Advent portion concluded with Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ serene “O Emmanuel,” with alto soloist Cody Bowers.

Highlights of the Marian portion were the lovely Basque carol “Gabriel’s Message” (arranged by Edgar Pettman), which featured soprano Krista Cornish Scott and tenor Chris Albanese, and the sweetly endearing “There is No Rose” with soprano Diane Walters and alto Sandra Thornton.

Addressing the Nativity were the ethereal “Tonight Eternity Alone” by René Clausen, with sopranos Heisler and Scott, and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” which was capped by a sprightly “Alleluia.” Jan Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est” was a joyous shout-out.

The bell ringers took over for two numbers of their own, an exuberant “Gaudete” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the latter in an arresting performance that included a big crescendo before ending softly.

Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque” (“Light and Gold”) with soprano Haney was beautifully shaped for all its brevity. John Tavener’s “Little Lamb” (“who made thee?”) was exquisite. The choir turned to the spiritual and gospel for “There’s a Star in the East” and “Behold the Star.” The latter (by William Dawson) was another highlight of the program, with an offstage “Peace on Earth,” sounded by tenor Anthony Beck.

The choir told the story of the Wise Men with Healy Wilan’s “The Three Kings,” which included much shading of dynamics (louds and softs). They were joined, fittingly, by the bell ringers for “On This Day Earth Shall Ring,” with the addition of a flute for heightened luminescence.

“Lully, Lulla, Lullay” was a gentle lullaby, with soprano Heisler on top at one point, while “Silent Night,” yet another highlight, featured soprano Kemper Florin and tenor Jason Vest in a very stylish arrangement by Steven Paulus.

“The Work of Christmas” by Dan Forrest brought the message of the concert home: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music from the heart.”

The choir closed with “Gitanjali Chants” by VAE music director Craig Hella Johnson. Set to verses by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (“You came down and stopped at my cottage door”), the chant-like work brought the concert full circle to end on a universal note with the interval of a fifth.

The audience, which nearly filled the church, rose to its feet in a unanimous ovation. (The VAE set a record for attendance with its two performances of this concert, the first one Saturday night at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Northside.)