The polished, eight-member British vocal ensemble Voces8 returned to La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church Sunday to perform a program titled Choral Dances. Opening with Benjamin Britten’s six Choral Dances from Gloriana, the composer’s 1953 patriotic opera written for the coronation of H.R.H. Elizabeth II, Voces8 established the dance theme, only to ignore it for most of the remainder of the program.
These six dances display some of Britten’s most imaginative writing, and Voces8 certainly gave each one the royal treatment: immaculate phrasing and diction, as well as vocal colors that perfectly suited the character of each dance. Their beautifully shaped pianissimo phrases of “Concord,” for example, were nothing short of breathtaking. When it comes to understatement, Voces8 has no challengers.
The singers shifted style with complete ease, offering the song that brought its composer, Nat King Cole, national attention in 1943, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Finger snaps and nimble scat singing gave the classic swing number apt jazzy nonchalance, an attitude that also suffused Irving Berlin’s earlier dreamy ballad “Cheek to Cheek.”
Since Voces8 had only two sacred selections on their program, at least they chose composers wisely. Palestrina’s Magnificat Primi Toni for double choir gave the ensemble a chance to show their prowess at delivering complex polyphony with uncanny assurance and immaculate ensemble, while Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) from his sublime All-Night Vigil brought welcome moments of spiritual reflection to the St. James sanctuary. Since Voces8 produces a bright, treble-heavy sonority—though supple, their tenors and basses lack depth and resonance—their account of Rachmaninoff did not convey the deep bass gravitas we associate with Russian choirs.
In the area of contemporary music, Voces8 performed their cover of Van Morrison’s 1970 hit song “Moondance,” in an arrangement by Alexander L’Estrange that suggested the chipper vocal style of a 1950s radio commercial. The group’s salute to avant garde, British-Chinese composer Alexander Ho’s “Scratch Theatre,” emerged as a wispy cloud of mouth noises that excluded both speech and musical vocalization. It reminded me of early compositions by Pauline Oliveros when she first taught at UC San Diego. Of course, these sounds proved particularly delicate, so even from the middle of the St. James’ nave, they were barely audible. Voces8 closed their program with Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s “Come Fly with Me”—a pop song written for Frank Sinatra in 1958.
Although most choirs and vocal ensembles sing from a well-defined formation, Voces8 tended to remain in motion, choreographing their songs in ever-changing formations as they sang, and the madrigals, they mimed some of the coy lyrics, which amused the La Jolla audience no end. Indeed, Sunday’s ample audience gave unstinting approval to the British vocal ensemble, encouraged by the clever verbal introductions various members of the ensemble offered as the concert progressed.
This concert was presented by The St. James Music Series of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, La Jolla, on Sunday, February 28, 2022.