“Oh Beautiful Forever,” the Vox Nova Chamber Choir’s program Sunday at the new Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, portrayed the sea, and the voyagers upon it, in every mood, with musical imagery comparable to that of Debussy’s “La Mer.”
Many of the selections were rare instances of musical settings further enhancing authentic poetry. All conjured up visions that characterize the Maine coast, even if they originated in Finland or South Africa. Eric Whitacre’s sensitive setting of Octavio Paz’ “Water Night,” was one example.
Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon M. Chase, specializes in contemporary vocal music, one of the brighter stars in the classical music heavens. The most complex and dissonant chords, when sung with perfect intervals, are readily accepted by audiences. But a wrong pitch in one of these delicately balanced chords stands out like a sore thumb.
The program began with “The Blue Estuaries,” by David Ashley White, which makes full use of such chords to portray scenes involving water, ending with the sense of a train ride when you’re moving backward.
I particularly liked “Past Life Melodies,” by Sarah Hopkins, a song without words reminiscent of ancient chants, echoing in cathedrals and caves. One passage had the weird floating overtones heard in Tuvan throat singing or the aboriginal didgeridoo instrument.
“A Drop in the Ocean,” by Erik Esenvalds, used whistling effectively to portray the howling of the wind, while in “The Sounding Sea,” by Eric William Barnum, off-beat stamping imitated the deep clap of a breaking wave.
One of the most effective images was “Virmalised” by Veljo Tormis, which imitates the shimmering of the Northern Lights by means of rapid syllabification. Another work by Tormis, “Incantatio Maris Aestuosi,” builds its musical motifs from the spoken rhythms of the Finnish national epic, the “Kalevala.”
The South African work “Horizons,” by Peter Louis Van Dijk, depicts the wonder of a coastal tribe, the San, at seeing its first galleon, using traditional African musical forms. As such, it was a little predictable, but nonetheless enjoyable, as were the traditional songs that ended the program, “The Water is Wide,” with Virginia Flanagan, on harp, “Oh, Shenandoah,” and “Down to the River,” made popular by the film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”
Vox Nova’s ability to interpret complex scores, making them both accessible and meaningful, is exceptional.
They also have one of the strongest bass sections I have heard.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.