Last evening a sold-out Georgetown crowd was treated to a sumptuous musical feast of the season by the English-based VOCES8 ensemble. The “impeccable quality of tone and balance” that has been recognized by Gramophone and many others was on full display in the splendid acoustics of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The program was varied, reaching back to the music of Tómas Luis de Victoria, Michael Praetorius, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Benjamin Britten, while also reaching forward to contemporary composers Jonathan Rathbone, Jonathan Dove, and David Pickthall, among others.
For me, the evening’s highlight was the moving Philip Stopford setting of the Coventry Carol, the traditional English carol dating from the 16th century. Stopford’s Lully, Lulla, Lullay—filmed by VOCES8 earlier this year in St. Stephen’s Walbrook Church, London—is as haunting and beautiful on film as it was in the live performance last evening. Soprano Eleonore Cockerham’s soft, clear, yet ethereal voice is a treasure.
The subject of the carol—the massacre of the innocent male children of Bethlehem by King Herod’s army following the birth of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew—is remembered in the church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. While scholars widely agree that it never happened, it remains an important part of the retelling of the nativity for a variety of reasons. One does not have to look far today—from the southern border of the U.S., to Palestine, to South Sudan, to North Korea, to all around the globe—to see how war, violence, and greed impacts the youngest and most vulnerable among us. When I hear Lully, Lulla, Lullay, I place it as much in today’s world as in the historical context of Bethlehem.
Washington was the first stop in a nine-city U.S. holiday tour that continues tonight in Baltimore and then moves to Texas, Alabama, and New York. This is a hard-working ensemble which had just completed performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Academy of Ancient Music prior to leaving for the U.S. tour. Full Disclosure: Our son Andrew sang with VOCES8 and the Choir of the VOCES8 Foundation last Tuesday evening, December 3rd, at the Messiah concert at Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge. It was refreshing to meet the singers last evening and have them give eyewitness reports from the U.K. that “Andrew is doing well” and is a delight to have as part of the larger ensemble for these concerts. Andrew was privileged to be one of the tenor soloists for the Bach St. John Passion performed by VOCES8, the VOCES8 Scholars, Apollo5, and the Academy of Ancient Music at the VOCES8 International Music Festival at Milton Abbey this past summer. (Shameless parental promotion: to hear him sing, check out the tenor aria Ach mein Sinn at the 31:00 minute mark of the video.)
Many thanks to our long-time friend, the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, Rector of St. John’s Georgetown, for her hospitality last evening. Do yourself a favor if you live in the Washington area and take in one or more of the remaining musical delights of this season’s Georgetown Concert Series. You’ll thank me for it!
More to come…