Eat local, drink local, shop local ... listen local? Southwest Voices, presented by Chorus Austin's Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble, encouraged us to do just that with a program showcasing choral works by 10 Texan composers, including two of AVAE's members. The concert closed Chorus Austin's 49th season with proof that there is plenty of homegrown talent to celebrate.
The 39-voice chorus started with Abby Gostein's "Vayarotz Likratam," with text from Genesis about Abraham's "audacious hospitality." Its repetition of the Hebrew phrase of welcome, bruchim ha-baim, was echoed by the physical embrace of "surround sound" created by the chorus' semicircular formation. Next came a setting of "Ave Maria" by chorus member Stephanie Andrews. This tranquil music, inspired by the plainchant tradition, began with a single soprano voice and slowly added voices to create a velvety crescendo. The beaming smile on Andrews' face during the applause was truly one of the highlights of the evening for me. Another high point was the world premiere of "Let Evening Come" by UT faculty composer Donald Grantham. Written after learning of his late wife's tumor, the combination of Jane Kenyon's tender poetry and Grantham's evocative setting yielded several "goosebump moments" – particularly one soprano entrance on the word "so" that was so haunting as to warrant special mention.
The only non-Texan on the program was the winner of Chorus Austin's first-ever Young Composers Competition. Joshua Fishbein, a 29-year-old doctoral student at UCLA, beat out nearly 40 entries with "A Prep-School Boy," a playful and rich tribute to 20th century composer Benjamin Britten that takes its text from a short note by Britten in the introduction to his Simple Symphony. In what Fishbein calls "a very literal musical interpretation" of the text, he took the idea of "text painting" to a new level; the word "minor" is obviously outlined by a minor chord, and the initials "E.B." are sung on those respective pitches. The thrilling harmonic changes felt like riding a roller coaster in the dark, keeping listeners at the edges of their seats for the unexpected swerves.
While the pieces ran the gamut of style and theme, they were strung together by thoughtful yet informal remarks by Artistic Director/Conductor Ryan Heller. This is how concerts ought to be: exploratory, casual, and, perhaps most importantly, built on passion. AVAE isn't a professional choir, but it's good. And though there's an occasional rhythmical hiccup here and there, it's easily forgiven and forgotten because of the generous and joyful spirit that's brought to the music. In his opening comments, Heller remarked that he wants to show that "classical music isn't something that died in the 19th century," and indeed, AVAE placed the stethoscope right on Texas and amplified its pulsating heartbeat.
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