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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Skylark Vocal Ensemble, It's A Long Way, Timeless Early, Modern, Folk Vocal Ensemble Music


Each day we wake and set our house in order, we restart our experiential engines and get ready for whatever comes. If you are like me music has much to do with how that day unfolds. Today I turn once again to vocal ensemble choral music, a chamber vocal gathering named the Skylark Ensemble. Their latest plays as I contemplate what it is about. It's A Long Way (HMR004), the title cut tells us. And perhaps after all it is. "Goodnight cow jumping over the moon" sings soprano Alissa Ruth Suver on Eric Whitacre's song about a bedtime story while the horror of the pandemic reigns. And doubtless we need such beautiful yet sad music to feel that we are indeed still here.

The main thing you take note of as the program winds out is how the 20 brief compositions straddle the old and the new, the formal institutional with the earthy and idiomatic, and how it all uniformly takes on a convincingly vibrant brilliance and ultra-musicality thanks to the talent and dedication of the artists in a sort of universal embrace of what they quite obviously are happy to sing. There are solo vocals sprinkled in with the ensemble works and happily everyone sounds fabulous.

Perhaps  you will be surprised as I was to hear a nice solo version of "Wayfaring Stranger" along with some gems by Arvo Part and Josquin des Prez? As you listen you embrace stylistic duplicity and convergence. So the title piece "It's A Long Way" by Neil Shaw Cohen takes the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poet William Stanley Braithwaite and sets it to a Modern-Early Modern sequence that happy spans the great divide between our ever evolving present and the living brilliance of pasts both yesterday and far, far away in time.

And in the end we get a beautiful melding of later Minimal and post-Minimal hypnotics with revived contrapuntal gems of earlier polyphonic life. So too they allows us to embrace Folk roots and even Romantic high expression. Following the album's sequence is to experience connections and interconnections of Western vocal music over time in myriad places.

American composer Evelyn Simpson rubs stylistic shoulders with Max Reger, Schubert and Thomas Tallis--and a happy surprise in the fetching folk ditty "A Game of Cards" sung with excellent verve by Fiona Gillespie. In the process we get a  new sort of Modern stance that eschews rigid distinctions between high and low, present and past, so much as it draws enthusiastically from the great well of vocal artistry looking both backwards and forwards to the future, from plainchant to "Nature Boy" and beyond. And happily it all works remarkably well. One travels along the adventurous route gladly and expectantly.

It may not exactly be what you expect and all the better for that. Skylark is as much curators of the whole legacy of vocal music as they are excellent vocalists and dedicated artists. Bravo. Listen!

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