Fort Worth — The Live Oak Music Hall and Lounge in Fort Worth is best known for presenting artists such as Gaelic Storm, Oil Boom, and Bummer Vacation—along with excellent burgers and 50-cent beer night.
Tuesday night, the clink of beer mugs accompanied choral music of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn and Palestrina.
The occasion was an appearance by Voces8, a London-based vocal octet presented by The Cliburn. Several decades into the (somewhat misnamed) “a cappella” movement, this particular mixed-gender ensemble stands as one of the classiest and most versatile ensembles to rise out of that enduring (and still totally cool) fad.
Classy because they devoted one-fourth of their program Tuesday to works associated with the British cathedral and chapel tradition. That they had a different take on that tradition was obvious in the opening solo phrase of Palestrina’s Magnificat, delivered with an almost operatic vibrato that promised a particularly dramatic approach to the tradition of unaccompanied choral music. And, though this ensemble of two women and six men (including two male altos, or countertenors) generally relied on the low-vibrato tone, they demonstrated not only in the classical repertoire but in the rest of the concert a wonderful flexibility of timbre and unusually broad expressive range.
After Palestriana, the group turned to the Latin motet Laudibus in Sanctis of Palestrina’s English contemporary William Byrd. Here, they emphasized the wonderful fluidity of the melodic lines and the almost dance-like character of this engagingly joyful ecclesiastical music. Furthermore, these singers introduced an absolutely convincing dynamic range not often dared by performers of Renaissance choral music, at one point moving from pianissimo to fortissimo in a matter of seconds.
From there, Voces8 leaped forward to the romantic era, performing a movement from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. In the “double quartet” known in English-speaking countries as “For He Shall Give His Angels Watch over Thee,” here stripped of its orchestral accompaniment and sung in the original German as “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen uber dir,” they reveled in the percussive consonants and almost austere, hymnlike harmonies and poly-choral call-and-answer effects. The octet closed out its “classical” set with the “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, once again producing an impressive resonance with a hypnotic slowing of tempo in the final phrase.
Thence to bop, pop and folk music (sometimes with mikes, sometimes without) beginning with Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” In Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the lyrics passed from bass to tenor to countertenor, and, finally, to full ensemble, with the close, wordless choral accompaniment creating a quasi-electronic aura.
Other highlights of the non-classical three-quarters of the program included an appropriately dreamy arrangement of the iconic hit of The Mamas & the Papas, “California Dreamin’.” A set of folk-based arrangements opened with the African-American spiritual “Steal Away,” delivered with operatic bravura as a baritone solo over a choral ostinato; equally lush versions of the British folksong “O Waly, Waly” (also known as “The Water is Wide”) and the American folksong “Shenandoah” rounded out this section.
Van Morrison’s 1970 hit “Moondance” provided ample opportunity for hammed-up, humorous seductiveness from the ensemble; Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” rocketed to a deliciously noisy close with a belted soprano riff, and Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King provided a lively, cheerful encore.
Fort Worth may have become, for now, a city without symphonic music. As exemplified by this concert, The Cliburn, with the next version of the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition looming on the horizon next summer, continues to do its part to provide a wide variety of great music for the city.