Voices of Ascension at St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue, on Thursday, February 4.
“Signature pieces” are crowd-pleasers, almost by definition: if it’s not the kind of thing that absolutely everyone loves, you probably won’t be performing it often enough for it to become a signature. I don’t begrudge Voices of Ascension putting together a program of such favorites—this is the choir’s twentieth anniversary, after all—but it did result in striking homogeneity. People love the Romantic period, and that’s what the program comprised: some early, some late, some French, such Russian, some Protestant, some Orthodox, but all Romantic, lushly expressive, sweetly melodic, chromatics yielding ultimately to tonality.
I don’t mean that as criticism, exactly—I love Mendelssohn and Bruckner and Rachmaninoff as much as anyone—but I would have enjoyed some Bach and Palestrina, too, or maybe Pärt or Britten or Chen. Under Dennis Keene’s baton, the choir has recorded works from the medieval period well into the twentieth century, so I’m puzzled why they limited themselves to just over a century of repertory here.
The first half of the program breezed through ten short works by assorted composers, and after an intermission, the choir performed Fauré’s heavenly Requiem—a cornerstore of Western choral literature for a reason. And even if I wearied a bit of all the pretty, pretty Romanticism, I never tired of the choir’s warmth. The voices blended together exquisitely, filling the sanctuary with glorious sound.
Fauré’s Requiem always strikes me as somewhat remote. The first requiems I knew were Mozart’s and Brahms’s, both of which ache with loss and trepidation, but Fauré is comparatively placid. I suppose there are a few moments of Sturm und Drang, particularly in the Introitus, but the most affecting, memorable passages are the quiet ones. The Pie Jesu, probably the best known movement, typifies that with its eerie, crystalline quality. Soprano Sharla Nafziger took that solo Thursday night, and it suited her, for she sounded like Nicole Kidman looks: beautiful and reserved and maybe a touch icy. The solo was well done, but I prefer the Requiem’s closing movement, In Paradisum, which takes the peaceful, angelic quality further but with more movement. Ethereal, sustained strings from the orchestra and gentle staccatos on flutes from the organ give the choir’s long, placid crescendos and diminuendos extra vibrancy, providing spark to the music’s innocence.
Like Fauré’s Requiem, all the works from the first half of the program used religious texts. Two, by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, were in the Russian Orthodox tradition, with great pillars of a cappella sound grounded on a rich basso profondo line. The works can be hard to pull off for that reason—if you don’t have basses who can give body to those low notes, not just the hit them, you shouldn’t bother—but Voices of Ascension sang the liturgical works with profound, octave-spanning reverence.
Another stand-out was Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable.” The anthem is rather simple, but after the intricate, unaccompanied harmonies of Bruckner, there was something satisfying about Vaughan Williams’s unabashedly grand, straightforward sound. Accompanied by some two dozen musicians, the organist literally pulling out all the stops, the choir ends in resolute unison on the familiar St. Anne tune, “O God, our help in ages past.”
But my favorite work was much quieter: C. V. Stanford’s “Beati quorum via.” It has a fugal texture, for one, and without Baroque or Renaissance works on the program, I had to take my polyphony where I could. But in truth, Stanford’s Latin motet has been a favorite of mine for years. I know the Irish-born composer wrote other works—symphonies, concertos, string quartets—but that one little choral piece is the only one I’ve ever heard performed. It’s standard repertory—every choir sings it at some point, relishing the pianissimos and the “Beati” arcing upward like a plea—and it’s beautiful, absolutely lovely. I don’t know anything about Stanford’s other works, but “Beati quorum via” is a gem, four perfect minutes of shimmering, six-part harmony. It makes me smile to think that that alone has been enough to grant the composer a sliver of immortality.