Oxford Times Review: University Church of St Mary the Virgin
By Alexandra Coghlan
4:19pm Wednesday 21st January 2009
Bringing choral music to Oxford is rather like crashing a convention of
diabetics with a box of doughnuts – superfluous at best, outright
dangerous at worst. Our city boasts more choirs per square metre than
almost any other, and with choral alumni including the Tallis Scholar
and The Sixteen, the bar is set high indeed.
Friday’s concert was, however, a timely reminder of the potentially
superb quality of the choral singing from across the Atlantic. The
VocalEssence Ensemble Singers are fully paid-up members of America’s
choral Ivy League; now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the choir
boasts a cabinet of awards and past collaborations with everyone from
Aaron Copland to John Rutter.
In a programmme celebrating the US’s choral heritage, roaming
through almost three centuries of national repertoire from both the
folk and art traditions, the choir proved themselves sophisticated tour
VocalEssence have a blend that could – and should – be the envy of
every choir in the business. With more than 30 singers, the choir’s
vocal capacity is potentially overpowering, yet under the meticulous
direction of Philip Brunelle their sound is full but never strident,
while at the same time maintaining a striking clarity of texture and
These skills came into their own in the contemporary art music of
Stephen Paulus and Eric Whitacre, whose delicately shifting textures
and dense vertical harmonies depend so critically upon a choir’s inner
balance and tone quality, and made for a particularly polished
performance of the latter’s miniature choral epic, Leonardo Dreams of
His Flying Machine, with its filigree gestures and textural drama.
Less successful, however, were the spirituals and folksong
arrangements that provided the programme’s more traditional elements.
Performed with a precision and sensitivity that was almost aggressive
in its exactitude, they lacked the sense of spontaneous outpouring and
emotional generosity demanded by songs such as Ching-A-Ring-Chaw or
Witness or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, if they are to be truly effective.
Somewhere among their technical virtuosity and tasteful
interpretation VocalEssence lost that crucial chink of humanity with
its raw and rudely cut edges; the perfectly formed yet slightly
over-polished result, despite its undeniable elegance, proved
ultimately a little too – dare I say it? – English.