On Oct. 9 at 8 p.m., over 300 guests—students, faculty and community members alike—had the immense privilege of experiencing a performance by what is no doubt one of the finest chamber vocal ensembles of the 21st century, and dare I say one of the best vocal groups of all time. VOCES8, a British ensemble consisting of eight members, performed the first concert of its ongoing U.S. tour right here at Vassar, titled “Underneath the Stars.” It was, without question, an unbelievable experience.
Prior to the concert, the group hosted a workshop on the evening of Oct. 8 with Vassar and community choir members, emphasizing choral performance practice and providing fun rhythmic and technical exercises. On the following morning of Oct. 9, the group conducted three separate workshops on ensemble singing, composition and music careers and brand-building. Then later that evening, the group showcased a two-hour program of songs focusing on spiritual and physical regeneration. The program consisted of classical and jazz compositions from across Europe and the United States, spanning from the 16th century to the present day.
The concert began with a piece by William Byrd from the group’s native England. Even from this first piece, it was clear that this group’s professionalism, quality and sheer talent were unlike anything I had ever heard. European music from this time is often written in a style called polyphony, where multiple independent melodic lines weave in and out of each other. This work is hard enough for a composer, but the hard task of a performer is to make each line stand out while also blending within one’s own part, all the while emphasizing the important lines of text in each part and making them clear. The group blended seamlessly with each other throughout, and the text was incredibly clear from the onset.
The following set saw a performance of a motet by the German early-Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz entitled “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”). This section of the concert focused on death before regeneration, and Schütz emphasizes the blessing in the text with more deftly crafted polyphonic lines. This piece specifically has sections of movement contrasted with moments in which multiple parts move together, a metaphor for the stillness or rest of the dead. The group navigated these contrasts beautifully, allowing each to shine in its own way.
The group also showcased many newer pieces, including a piece written by Paul Smith, a founding member of the group and now the CEO of the VOCES8 Foundation, a company consisting of the group itself as well as outreach programs, educational initiatives and other methods of musical community engagement. The piece, entitled “Nunc Dimittis,” describes the blessing for a peaceful departure, fitting in well with the first section’s themes of death before regeneration. The second act, focused more on renewal, saw the presentation of some choral favorites, including an arrangement of Kate Rusby’s folk song “Underneath the Stars,” as well as Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo’s “Ubi Caritas,” a staple in the contemporary choral canon. In this second half, the group also dazzled with some madrigals, and notably gave a few words describing the meaning and ideas behind these older pieces, which can often seem inaccessible to modern American audiences with their distinctly 17th century English vocabulary and sound. These pre-set program notes really highlighted the group’s deep understanding of everything they performed, as well as its commitment to classical music education.
During this two-hour performance, what struck me the most about this unbelievable group of musicians was its performance practice, understanding of the music and interaction with each other onstage. While it certainly takes skill to perform classical music well, it is an entirely different level of ability to perform with such a knowledge and understanding not only of the repertoire, but also of everyone performing with you. VOCES8 performed as one unit, one brain with eight voices. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard.
A group this skilled could well have simply offered this fantastic performance, and we as a community would have certainly been grateful. However, I cannot say enough how much of a joy it was to hear firsthand VOCES8’s methods of performance practice, and how the group individually coached the members of the Vassar choirs to teach them how to better convey the music. In addition, the group spent time in the workshops to talk about composition, arranging, building an online brand as a musician and understanding the contemporary landscape of classical music. All of this is invaluable information to young classical musicians, and it gave me such a great perspective on the industry.
VOCES8 was an absolute joy to hear perform and to work with, and I am so grateful to the Music Department for bringing the ensemble to our campus. The group’s skill and professionalism are unmatched, and their willingness to spend time working with the choirs showed an immense commitment to music education and outreach. Voces8 truly made the weekend one I will never forget.
Note: VOCES8’s Exclusive North American Booking Representative: Opus 3 Artists; General Manager: Edition Peters Artist Management