“The purpose of Bella Voce Women’s Chorus of Vermont is to promote choral music of quality, through performances of high artistic value; provide members with the opportunity to enhance their musical knowledge and skills; enrich the quality of life of members and audiences; serve as role models to women singers of all ages; and promote the value of singing as a life-long avocation.”
The above is the mission statement of the Bella Voce Women’s Chorus, and their Sunday afternoon performance at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier reflected each and every word. From the opening fanfare like performance of Emma Lou Diemer’s “Alleluia” to the closing “shouts” of Clifton Noble’s arrangement of “Elijah Rock,” meaningful texts, beautiful sounds and carefully shaped phrases are just some of the attributes that can be accorded to this women’s chorus under the direction of founder Dawn Willis, assistant director Glory Reinstein and conducting intern Heather Aube and Kate McRae.
So many aspects of this ensemble impress me that it would be foolhardy of me to comment on all of them; nor would you last through such a long missive! But I would like to comment on a few of my thoughts as I listened to the beautiful sounds of this group resonate in the wonderful acoustic of the Unitarian church in Montpelier. For this program the title of “A New England Tapestry of Song” was chosen, and the program truly mirrored that sub-text. The three early American song settings that were chosen were well matched; J.P. Storm’s “Blooming Vale,” Justin Morgan’s “Amanda” and Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Hark, I Hear The Harps Eternal.” I was fortunate years ago to sing with Jim Chapman’s Choral Union when we rehearsed and recorded a number of pieces in this genre, and so I was not surprised to find that I had sung Justin Morgan’s selection before; what a beautiful piece of music in its simplicity. The women of Bella Voce sang it with a warmth and beauty that I am sure would have made Morgan weep. The Parker arrangement was the perfect ending piece to this set that was full of energy and rhythmic and textual clarity.
I MUST comment on diction and rhythmic integrity here, because it was clear from the outset of the concert that we were in for a treat in this arena. It is a difficult thing for a choir to maintain the kind of focus and discipline that it takes to have every syllable of every work, of every stanza of every moment be absolutely perfect. It seldom happens, even with the best choirs! But we were treated to some very clean singing on Sunday that made me think about some of the best choirs that I have heard in my years of concert going! Take for instance these lines from “Hark, I Hear The Harps Eternal;”
Hark, I hear the harps eternal
ringing on the farther shore.
As I near those swollen waters,
with their deep and solemn roar.
Now think of every vowel, every consonant and every sound being perfectly placed in time, with exactly the proper amount of time given to each sound, and all members of the ensemble performing in perfect sinc with each other! It happened on Sunday, time and time again….the perfect alignment of consonants and rhythm in time, and when it happens, it is a miracle that is difficult to ignore. It is moving and satisfying and artistic. For me, when these elements are attended to in rehearsal, and they happen in concert, combined with other expressive elements and the myriad of other minutia that we all look for in the choral art, the experience is transforming in a way. THIS is the kind of singing that excites me, and THIS is the kind of singing that we were shown on Sunday afternoon!
If you have not heard Gwyneth Walker’s newest set of songs titled “The Youthful Traveler,” than be ready to hear some of her best writing yet! In three movements 1) Free Spirit 2) Arise, and Come Away, and 3) Back and Forth on the Ferry, she brings thought and wit and beautiful writing to texts of Walt Whitman, The Songs of Songs (drawn from the “Song of Solomon”) and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Gwyneth Walker was present for this performance, and she seemed quite pleased with the performance. What a great collaboration between Bella Voce and this treasured composer that we have in our midst; they seem to be made for each other!
Cantiamo (the select group drawn from the larger ensemble) performed beautifully as well and delivered four uniquely different kinds of selections. David Feurzeig’s (UVM faculty) “Months,” was interesting and carefully crafted. It was the first time I had indeed heard this, and I was intrigued by his writing and harmonic setting. The other pieces were Cooman’s “A Prayer Before Sleep,” Gawthrop’s “Sing Me To Heaven,” (newly set for women’s voices by Paul Carey) and Sandra Milliken’s “Jubilate Deo.” In all cases these women performed in the best traditions that have been set my the larger ensemble. What a pleasure indeed!
I have often written about the great ideas and thoughts and perceptions that Robert Shaw had; in every instance I wrote to you about them because I truly believe that Shaw was pursuing the kind of perfection in the choral art that is not often experienced. Many took shots at his work with claims that his groups lacked tone, that the interpretations were too mechanical, that he missed the “big picture” in some of the larger works and forms. I just don’t see it though; his work was aimed at every part of the choral art, from diction to tone, rhythmic integrity to beautifully shaped phrases, etc. He worked at those kinds of things through the window of technique; if the technique was in place, than the meaning of the music would literally jump of the page at you. I believe he was correct, and I believe that Bella Voce works toward those very same goals. Whatever the process, the end product is noteworthy. If we take this program as an example I would say that the mission statement is taken seriously. Of prime importance is doing music of “quality,” which also implies meaningful texts that have life changing possibilities; and to perform them with the highest of artistic values in mind. Without a doubt every individual in the group grows and matures as a musician, singer and human being through exposure to the high ideals, quality music and texts of intrinsic worth, not to mention the discipline that it takes to achieve these performances. Through the performance these same qualities are laid out for the audience to react to. And without a doubt these women act as very strong role models for women of all ages, but also to all musicians of all ages and genders.
Additionally, this is a very classy group. Their visual presentation is impressive, from the concert dress to the matching scarf’s; indeed I always look forward to what color we will be treated to next! Their entrance to the performance stage, their demeanor on stage and their obvious love for what they are doing instantly shows in their faces and in their pride. They have a mentoring program that is such a wonderful part of their mission, and when director Willis is not conducting, she sings with the group! That says lots in my book! And after a conducting intern finishes, one just need take notice to see the obvious pride and satisfaction that is present on the conductors face and the faces of fellow singers. From concert presentation to glorious singing to a very professional web site, everything about this relatively new ensemble screams out for recognition.
We are blessed with many fine choral ensembles in our area; indeed, the Burlington Choral Society, the Orianna Singers, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Vermont Choral Union, Counterpoint, numerous community choirs and church choirs, some outstanding high school ensembles and many smaller groups of significance, including the Essex Children’s Choir. Yes, we are blessed with the sounds of the choral art in our Chittenden County area and in our beautiful state. But Bella Voce occupies a special and very unique niche. I propose that we all make sure that from this day forward there are no empty seats in any of their performances. We have a treasure here.