The VOCES8 Foundation is launched at St Anne & St Agnes

At a concert by VOCES8 and Apollo5, is the answer. Diversity,
together with vocal discipline and strong musical direction were the
touchstones of the performance I attended at the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne
& St Agnes in the City of London earlier this month, where
long-standing supporters of the two vocal ensembles gathered with new
audience members to mark the renaming of the VCM Foundation as the VOCES8 Foundation.

VOCES8 was founded by brothers Paul and Barnaby Smith in 2005, and the
following year the music charity VCM Foundation was established to develop
the ensemble’s music education and outreach programmes which today reach up
to 40,000 people a year.

Initiatives include an annual programme of workshops and masterclasses at
the Foundation’s home at the VOCES8 Centre; the VOCES8 Scholars programme,
set up in 2015, which offers eight choral scholarships to young singers
providing valuable experience and contacts as they commence their
professional careers; and the unique teaching tool The VOCES8 Method,
developed by Paul Smith, which adopts music to enhance development in
numeracy, literacy and linguistics and is available in four languages.

VOCES8 don’t rest on their laurels either. 2017 saw the launch of the US
Scholars Programme. The ensemble is the Associate Ensemble for Cambridge
University and delivers a Masters programme in choral studies at the
university. They are also official Ambassadors for Edition Peters, who
published the VOCES8 method and this season the ensemble became Ambassador
for the Tido App, an inspirational resource and learning tool created by
Edition Peters.

This summer VOCES8 are the resident ensemble at the Milton Abbey
International Music Festival, where they will deliver the VOCES8 Summer
School in conjunction with the Festival. Now these activities, along with
the work of the sister group Apollo5 and VOCES8 Records, will be brought
together under a single unifying banner, the VOCES8 Foundation.

When I heard VOCES8 perform alongside Rachel Podger at

King’s Place in March 2018

I remarked they ‘were notable for their unblemished blending, pure tone,
true intonation and shapely phrasing – and, notably, their confident
execution under the unobtrusive direction of countertenor Barnaby Smith’
and that they were equally accomplished in stylistically diverse idioms and
genres. So, I was looking forward to this celebration of the 2018-19 season
at the VOCES8 Centre, with performances of some of the works that have
been highlights of the past year.

First, though, Apollo5 made the mystical strains of PÈrotin’s Beata Viscera resonate transcendently across and around the Church
of St Anne & St Agnes. It was wonderful to hear the blended sound
unfold in Byrd’s own setting of the Communion motet for the Nativity of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the steady uniformity of Byrd’s setting was
animated with the spirit of belief, before an expansive and confident
Alleluia. Apollo5 also performed ‘Wishes’ by Fraser Wilson, a
mellifluous composition in which the even-paced wandering of folk-like
melody was supported by a smooth cushion occasionally made piquant by
text-illuminating harmonic twists.

Wishes’ is included on Apollo5’s recently released CD,

O Radiant Dawn

, along with Wilson’s arrangements of traditional songs, ‘Scarborough Fair’
and ‘The Skye Boat Song’. There’s also a folk arrangement by another
contemporary choral conductor, Alexander Levine, of a traditional Russian
song, ‘Oh, You Wide Steppe’ which was also performed at St Anne & St
Agnes. The sustained tones of the opening are haunting, but the rich
blossoming of subsequent verses brings a frisson of passion for the
homeland and the free flowing River Volga. It’s a striking conclusion to
the disc.

O Radiant Dawn
comprises characteristically eclectic repertoire: from Thomas Morley’s ‘I
Love, Alas, I Love Thee’ to Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘The Call’ (arr. Harry D
Bennett), from Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ to the album’s
eponymous motet by James MacMillan. The rhythmic precision and the
concordance of tuning and phrasing of the four-part homophony in the latter
is superb, and the delicate, rising and falling thirds for soprano and alto
in the central episode are no less carefully placed. The performance
conveys both the joy of the new day and a hint of man’s vulnerability
before the glory of God.

The Elizabethan madrigals seem to my ear more successful than the polyphony
of Byrd; in Orlando Gibbons’s ‘The Silver Swan’ – taken here at quite a
slow, reflective pace which makes those dark, desirous chromaticisms all
the more deliciously telling – the ensemble seem to respond instinctively
to the text and craft a sure overall structure. The same is true of
Monteverdi’s madrigal (from the Fourth Book) in which the declamatory style
is imbued with energy which pushes towards the musical conceits delineating
the vivid images of Rinuccini’s text.

The CD liner booklet includes texts and translations, although the singers
from the group (Penelope Appleyard and Clare Stewart (sopranos), Joshua
Cooter and Oli Martin-Smith (tenors) and Greg Link (bass) who perform solos
within particular items are not identified, and nor are there explanatory
notes. The sound is resonant and rich. This is an hour’s worth of music of
moving luminosity and lyricism: music which, in the ensemble’s own words,
reaches for ‘a glimpse of the sublime’.

At the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, Apollo5’s atmospheric performance
was followed by a similarly diverse series of items by VOCES8. The
rendition of Sibelius’s hymnic ode ‘Be still my soul’ was tremendously
impassioned and rich – were there really only eight singers? – while Dove’s
setting of George Herbert’s ‘Vertue’ captured the gradual darkening of the
poem’s sentiments, as the death that shadows all natural things grows ever
more present, only evaded by the virtuous soul which will be made eternal
through union with God. The swelling divisi phrases of ‘Let My
Love Be Heard’, a setting of a poem by Alfred Noyes by American composer
Jake Runestad, offered both a sense of catharsis following grief and softer
consolation, while similar certainty and comfort was offered by polyphonic
expressions of faith by Thomas Luis de Victoria and Orlando di Lasso.

VOCES8’s ability to switch from one idiom to another in a blink of the eye,
and perform anything from motets to the melodies of Broadway which equal
accomplishment and stylishness, was demonstrated by their soulful rendition
of Joshua Pacey’s arrangement of ‘Danny Boy’ and the cool clarity of
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘One Note Samba’ which brought proceedings to a

The evening had opened with three compositions by Paul Smith, performed by
the VOCES8 Scholars, Apollo5, soloist soprano Clare Stewart and viola
player Neil Valentine. These works are included on Smith’s forthcoming
debut album, Reflections,
which features 2,500 voices from across the globe, from age 8 to 80,
personally recorded by Paul on his travels over Asia, Europe, Africa and
America during the last decade: ‘the disc moves from plainchant to
lullabies, early opera to contemporary choral, inviting the listener on a
journey of introspective reflection’.

‘Chant’ began with a searching melody meandering about a sustained tone,
the latter expanding slowly into a sound wave punctuated first by
Valentine’s quiet but pressing pizzicati (more audible on the
recording than live in the church) and then by delicate piano reflections
which urge the viola to take flight in a poignant melody. Think Enya meets
Keith Jarrett. Very chilled. Smith’s Nunc Dimittis, in contrast, is more
Tavener-like in its pulsing chords and registral contrasts, and in its
striving towards finely grained, warm, euphonious resolution – with a tinge
of tension lingering in the after-silence.

The first performance of Reflections took place at an IMAX cinema
in California, at a special event which raised $100,000 for a local music
charity. The disc is released by VOCES8 Records on 2nd August 2019.

Claire Seymour

product_title=The VOCES8 Foundation is launched at the Gresham Centre.
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: VOCES8