Voces8, a world-class, world-renowned British a capella group, enchanted their large audience at their concert at St. Vincent Ferrer’s Catholic Church in Manhattan on October 20. Their selection was idiosyncratic and varied. They opened with “Sing Joyfully,” a lighthearted song by William Byrd, and then sang two heart-rending selections from 20th-century composers. Pop and humorous madrigals also found their place, Bach made a lively (if uneven) appearance, and Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” slid in to wrap up the afternoon.
Song order didn’t matter much. There wasn’t a timeline to see or story to learn, and each successive song raised the bar to new heights. One of the most moving moments of the afternoon happened during their third piece, Jake Runestad’s “Let My Love Be Heard.” This song stilled the room, stunning into silence all who heard it.
The song reached its highest, most dramatic moment, a dramatic moment gained so gradually that its arrival left you in awe as the sound opened fully. The controlled harmonies locked tightly and pulled the listener completely into the sound. When the sound ended, the audience seemed to be left bewildered by its absence.
Fifteen to 20 seconds passed before anyone even dared breathe, let alone applaud
Classical-music audiences are a finicky, fickle set. Their enthusiasm for excellent music is nearly unmatched, but their zeal tends to kill the moment. Many of the songs on Voces8’s program ended in lush harmonies or whispered tones. Except for one lengthy pause after the Runestad, the audience broke into vigorous clapping less than five seconds after each piece concluded. Enraptured listeners were startled.
The concert itself was titled “Sing Joyfully,” and never was a program so aptly named. It wasn’t so much that each piece was upbeat or depicted something light, though a number of them were, and did. The performers conducted themselves through the entire event in a manner that conveyed wonder and delight.
There are two poles that vocal groups swing between — either overly formal or too casual — and striking the right balance of interaction can prove challenging. Camaraderie is essential, but forced camaraderie becomes corny. Audiences may laugh, but too many jokes and asides can detract from the overall experience. Other groups I’ve observed are talented, but stiff and stoic on stage.
Voces8 has discovered a sweet spot. Natural comity makes the sound flow seemingly effortlessly. Constantly in eye contact with one other, they didn’t sway wildly but remained graceful and alert. During breaks between pieces, while one of their fellow singers is explaining the next few songs to the audience, the others may pass a word or two among themselves as they realign in a new position. They smile, nod, maybe give direction or encouragement. They have boundaries with the audience, and we feel comfortable in following where they lead. One of the singers mentioned to me after the concert that traveling with the group was like traveling with siblings, and that they all got along. (An amusing observation, as siblings tend to bicker with one other, especially during trips!)
All the songs on the program moved forward, swept, rose, fell. It is difficult for a singer to let a song fade to nothing, taking immense care to listen and control — control to maintain your own sound and to listen and match with those around you. Acutely aware of blending, the singers would rearrange themselves depending on the song, to achieve the best tone. “London by Night” showcased this technique best, as their particular formation altered the sound quality, or at least our perception of it.
Perhaps because it was a rainy day the afternoon of the concert, I thought of this quote from Pope Benedict XVI, his observation that “the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.”
The beauty on display at the Voces8 concert did that at least for one listener, and she walked home light of step and considerably lighter of heart.