Songs of Love and Loss

This ambitious Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble program was like a tale of two choirs

Arts Review

Songs of Love and Loss

Hope Presbyterian Church

April 23

Originally founded as the Austin Handel-Haydn Society, the Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble merged in 1999 with the Austin Civic Chorus, creating Chorus Austin, a consortium of three different ensembles that includes the 100-member Civic Chorus and the elite 24-member Consort; the Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble fits somewhere between the two. Amid thunderstorms rumbling around Austin this past Friday night, the 30 or so members of the AVAE took to the stage to deliver a musical exploration of love and loss.

With such a broad theme, conductor Ryan Heller had a vast repertoire from the choral canon to pluck from. The result was a sprawling and ambitious program, ranging from Renaissance madrigals to the masters of today.

The ensemble had nearly as great a range of success in performance, though, setting up an evening that played out much like a tale of two choirs, in one moment inspired and balanced and the next lackluster and unimaginative.

First, to the inspired. Throughout the first half of the concert, the ensemble struggled to find its voice, a fact made only more striking when it finally did. For Norman Dello Joio's "Come to Me, My Love," a lush and moving piece, the ensemble soared, creating an entirely believable sonic landscape that captured the yearning in Christina Rossetti's poetry. The group followed with Morten Lauridsen's setting of Pablo Neruda's "Soneto de la Noche," a delicate, soft piece that displayed the group's strong balance. The ensemble's take on Ned Rorem's "Four Madrigals" was memorable, not only for Rorem's eccentric endings but also for the graceful way by which the group navigated the many colors of the modern piece. Later in the evening, the highlight was Jean Belmont's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," based on a poem by Christopher Marlowe. With its dense layers and enmeshed tonality, this was a difficult piece, both technically and stylistically. The singers delivered a confident, moving interpretation.

Woven among these triumphs, however, were performances that fell entirely flat. The program opened with a muddy and sluggish performance of John Farmer's "A Little Pretty Bonny Lass." These issues continued through Claude Debussy's atmospheric "Dieu! Qu'il la fait bon regarder," which calls for its ensemble to be crisp and lithe. Here the group had trouble settling in rhythmically, especially in the inner voices, and failed to deliver the oscillating vocal material that drives the piece. Later, for Johannes Brahms' "Three Quartets" that same lethargy persisted. The third quartet tightened and finished strong, but all in all the performance lacked, well, the oomph of the aforementioned successes.

All together, the performance was neither the worst nor the best of times for the Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble. The ensemble certainly displayed a knack for modern works, given that all four of the night's strongest performances were written after World War II. And whether the inconsistencies in the performance resulted from a lack of preparation or focus, the program still proved that, given the right mix of elements, AVAE is a wonderfully promising ensemble. It's Heller's job, as well of that of the vocalists themselves, to discover how to play to the ensemble's strengths and edit out the rest.

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Songs of Love and Loss, Austin Vocal Arts Ensemble, Ryan Heller, Austin Handel-Haydn Society, Austin Civic Chorus, Chorus Austin

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