This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake Vocal Ensemble. No member would ever tell you that it's been easy to come this far, but it's been possible, and sometimes triumphant.
This group of 20 singers has a half-dozen hard-core sustaining members who are dedicated to its survival and believe in its mission - to discover and perform small, neglected choral works of arresting beauty from all periods - and they have been extraordinarily successful in identifying their special repertory and performing it well.Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and old English have all profited from their intelligent and musicianly approach, as well as bel canto, classic and romantic styles. They've explored the contemporary idiom and commissioned new works from Utah composers, some of them remarkable in scope and appeal.
This season's concert well illustrates their aims and abilities, opening with three madrigals by Orlando de Lasso - elegant, polished, free-flowing songs that display the mellow, rounded tone, seamless blend and golden color this ensemble of accomplished singers has developed under conductor Mark Pearce. Especially enjoyable is "Ce faux amour" (This False Love), with its polyphonic complexities and descriptive rendering of such colorful phrases as "to arms, to arms" and "fire, fire."
Reprising favorite songs of Utah composers, they showcase the expertise of Ramiro Cortes, who is gone but should not be forgotten. His two affecting settings of Ben Jonson poems beautifully blend old English flavor and effects with modern devices.
From Macbeth's soliloquy, "Tomorrow and tomorrow," Michael O'Connor constructs a darkly glowing, dramatic gem, with cluster chords, no basic tonal feeling, and aleatory effects. By contrast, the lovely pastoral "Evening at Split Mountain Campground," with descriptive words and music by ensemble member Richard Wunder, evokes the eternal peace of Utah's natural grandeur.
Large works form the center of the concert, beginning with Franz Schubert's seldom-heard "Mir-jam's Siegesgesang" (Miriam's Triumph Song). Solo soprano leads out, with choral response, and soprano Marsha Stephens uses a sizable, well-focused voice to stirring effect in this text of rejoicing. The work proceeds at a leisurely, poised pace, with Schubertian majesty and becoming declamatory, and ending with a stirring fugue.
Especially gratifying is the Mass for Four Voices of William Byrd, the great English polyphonist - a setting of freshness and simplicity that moves clearly and cleanly through the Latin text and suits well the capabilities and impeccable style of this ensemble. Soloists Sylvia Hartley, Rick Givens and William Drews join Stephens as soloist, with John Payne as cantor.
Turning to jazz, the singers conclude with a stylized arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and the syncopated rhythm of "Java Jive." From Ward Swingle comes a delightful setting of Shakespeare's "It Was a Lover and His Lass" - not to be confused with Morley, but just as piquant in its own right.