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Songs of Peace in Midwinter

December 11, 2007

When, in the winter of our discontent, carols are pressed into the service of commerce in stores and TV commercials, it is refreshing to hear a concert focused on peace, the core of the original Christmas story. Such a concert was provided Saturday by Voci Women's Vocal Ensemble, at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley. Titled "Voices in Peace VII: Winter Stillness," the program made many references to the darkness, cold, and stillness of winter. Snow and cold are more metaphorical than real in the Bay Area, but the metaphors remain powerful.


Vincent Persichetti's Winter Cantata, a setting of 11 haiku translations, was a wonderful compilation of images — such as "chilly sky," "silver fern of frost," "frozen gems of rime," "coverlet of powdered snow," "deep heavy snow," "jagged cedars" — all beautifully set and beautifully sung, with evocative accompaniment by Amelia Archer on flute and William Winant on marimba. An epilogue brings many of these images together into a final cohesive whole.

Two poems about the moon by Thomas E. Ahlburn also created striking visual and aural images, and composer Ron Nelson captured them well in Three Settings of the Moon. The women sang them lovingly, sensitive to the words, the distribution of voices, and the range of dynamics. Nelson's settings included some nice musical gestures for the accompanying flute, percussion, and piano (Heather Heise), all well-executed by the players and conductor Jude Navari.

Samuel Barber's four-part Twelfth Night for mixed chorus was arranged for Voci by Ed Cohen. The women gave this fairly dissonant motet a fine performance, sung a cappella. And they spoke directly to our own times by singing Claude Debussy's Noël des Enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons (Christmas carol for homeless children). During World War I, Debussy wrote both the words and the music for this, his last solo song, dedicated to children devastated by war. Voci sang it in an effective choral arrangement by Clytus Gottwald.
Notes Carried in the Heart
Music and poetry written by women are staples of Voci's repertoire. Judith Weir's imaginative setting of poems by e.e. cummings, titled little tree, was a pleasure to hear. The second, "i carry you in my heart," is a good example of the imprecision of musical notation; for instance, quarter notes may look all the same, but often they are not. In speech, not all syllables are equal in length or stress, and this poem did not "speak" in performance as well as you might wish.

Edward Elgar's composition The Snow was a setting of a poem by his wife, C. Alice Elgar. Unfortunately, the poem is far from distinguished, and does not seem to have inspired the composer's best efforts, but it was well-sung, to flute accompaniment. Voci sang some dissonant pieces well, but Judy Margulis' arrangement of the traditional Avinu Malkeinu seemed to produce some intonation problems that may not have been the composer's.

The concert began with an elegant setting by Paula Foley Tillen of Christina Rossetti's poem December. Voci sang it warmly, starting off as a double chorus and melding into one as the piece progressed, accompanied by Heather Heise's supportive pianism. Rossetti finds warmth in winter, speaking of "a carol shepherds heard once, in a wintry field." An encore, In the Bleak Midwinter, sung a cappella, sounded the same theme: From darkness, cold, and stillness can come warmth and joy.

The Bay Area is blessed with many choruses. The women of Voci, like most choristers, have mostly nonmusical day jobs, and are united in their love of singing. They form a singing community, and they are intimately connected with their larger community. Next year look for "Voices in Peace VIII."

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.