The human voice can be a lovely instrument, especially when raised on high by a choir of dedicated and trained musicians who practice their discipline sans help from other instruments. It’s an art whose rewards can be displayed in sacred and secular settings via massive groups like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or in the context of smaller, more intimate forces like Western New York’s Harmonia Chamber Singers.
While power and volume is a natural outcome of larger ensembles, the nimbleness possible with smaller choirs allows individual vocal lines a better chance of standing out, displaying a song’s inner details and showcasing the arrangement to better effect.
In a concert situation, programming is another important tool for catching the ear and revealing these voices in an advantageous way. The Harmonia Chamber Singers’ concert Friday evening was a success because of how all these elements lined up with each other.
The title of the program (“All Set!”) was appropriate given the way the architecture of the concert was constructed, selecting works based on texts, historical contrasts and traditions that married well. In the end it was a night of snippets, a listener’s digest where segments from larger works were lifted from their original context and placed in another role; it was a tapas setting for the ears.
A “Marian” text by 16th century composer Orlande de Lassus fit seamlessly with a pair of more modern scores by Maurice Durufle and a contemporary piece modeled on ancient traditions by Ola Gjeilo. Excerpts from major 20th century French and British composers (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel on one hand with Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams on the other) revealed the cross-cultural fertilization going on at that time as a creative approach in one work was modified in another.
The last “set” involved a blend of child-centric works. John Rutter’s arrangement of “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and Moses Hogan’s take on the spiritual “Walk Together, Children” bracketed the Swingle Singers jazzed up interpretation of Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cake Walk”.
Throughout the concert, Harmonia’s principal founder and principal conductor, Robert Pacillo, alternated between leading the singers and joining them, often as assistant director Monica Stankewicz stepped to the fore. Their individual styles were interesting with Pacillo being more physically restrained with tight, precise gestures giving cues, while Stankewicz bobbed and weaved, using gestures that achieved the same sort of results but with far more physicality. Both were effective and enviable because no matter how well the choir may have sounded to the audience who responded to the singing with a standing ovation, the best place to hear a choir in full voiced splendor is when you’re leading the singers through their paces.