The music of harmony

Kansas City’s Musica Vocale celebrated their 10th season anniversary with a program comprised solely of works for choir and winds.

Musica Vocale (Kansas City’s volunteer-based choir comprised of 24 “veteran members of the region’s musical community”) presented a concert Sunday afternoon with music by J.S. Bach, Heinrich Schütz, Felix Mendelssohn, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Bruckner—all composed for choir and wind instruments. The choir, placed in the center of the opulent Power and Light Grand Hall, was flanked by a wing of brass and a wing of double reeds reaching out to either side.

For a concert billed as a celebration, the works chosen were surprisingly serious. The text of each piece was religious in nature (Stravinsky’s Mass, Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria, etc.) and focused on the omnipresence of death—in the Bach “…on earth I am only a guest” and in the Mendelssohn “pray for us… at the hour of our death.” In fact, the Bach (O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV 118) is known to have been first performed at the funeral of a governor. That said, the compositions sometimes reached the ecstatic highs that one might associate with religious experience and those moments can be their own kind of celebration. Artistic director and conductor Arnold Epley, 79, however, seemed preoccupied with the previous subjects himself, occasionally joking that he had “lived too long” and that if he were “here next year, we’ll have to do this again and have a birthday party for me” (for his 80th). These jokes were good-natured and self-effacing, but did unexpectedly underline some of the subject matter in the music itself.

As for his conducting itself, Epley valiantly led the ensemble through the pieces, betraying no age at all. His movements were zealously full of vigor where necessary and delicate where appropriate. One got the sense that he did care deeply for the music being performed and that it has been a lifelong love.

First on the program, the Bach washed through the space with the constantly rolling quality that his pieces sometime take on. Epley started the wind players up without waiting for applause to fully stop, and for a moment the harmonies (built off of a pedal B-flat in the bass) had the open timelessness that instrumental tuning has, of testing the space. When the music started to move harmonically the effect was of the music growing organically from the room itself. When the choir entered it felt both surprising and necessary.

Next up on the program was Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes by 17th century composer Heinrich Schütz. Both this piece and the Bach worked in the concert’s space best of those on the program—the freewheeling contrapuntal writing filling the reverberant hall with flowing streams of notes. In the other pieces, with slower motion from note to note, the hall tended to eat certain frequencies, leaving sonorities sounding a little less full than would be expected. This effect was especially problematic during Stravinsky’s Mass.  This piece features much more austere harmonies that would benefit from a drier performance space. None of this is a failing on the musicians’ part; however, they handled the difficulties of the performance space especially well. There were a few moments during the Mass’s Agnus Dei in which the choir and winds both found beautiful sonorities on which to linger, leaving the work on a thoughtful conclusion.

For Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria, tenor Jay Carter, associate artistic director and conductor for the ensemble, stepped out into a solo role. The piece begun with a short three note introduction from him. His voice was pleasant, but the real treat was the choir’s following responsorial, an ocean swell of a similar short phrase. This quickly became the paradigm of the first section of the piece, a tenor solo followed by the choir responding similarly but amassed, all accompanied by the winds. Despite the charm Carter’s individual voice had, it served to heighten the responses’ beauty in numbers, a fitting metaphor for the group itself.

The sound of the choir is the sound of people coming together, if not in unison then at the very least in harmony. This was no more apparent than at the end of Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos magnus (also, incidentally, the end of the concert), where a volatile fortissimo section of individuals crying out melts away into the quietest moment of the entire concert: a simple chord repeated several times, an accord made between the members of a group.

Musica Vocale
Harmoniemusik: 10th Season Anniversary Celebration
Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
The Grand Hall at Power & Light
1330 Baltimore Ave, Kansas City, MO 64105
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