Dallas — The Women’s Chorus of Dallas has surprised again. My second visit proved to be as enjoyable as it was enlightening. The March 5 concert was called “Travelin’ Voices,” but it could have been called “Visitin’ Voices” because it featured guest artists that ran the gamut from a folk singer to a contemporary chorus from Texas Woman’s University. Oh, and some local high school choirs joined in at the end.
It was a musical buffet.
The guest artist, who sang most of the program, was the singer, arranger, and composer, Moira Smiley. She was assisted by her award-winning group VOCO. Their style is hard to describe because it combines so many different elements and influences. Calling her a folk singer is not really accurate, but it reflects the manner in which she sings a wide variety of effortlessly combined musical influences. The overall effect is original, and it leaves you searching for a descriptive word to apply. With four backup singers, VOCO presented some precise a cappella singing with pristine intonation. But frequently, she played an accompaniment on a banjo with a cellist and drummer that are part of VOCO as well.
Smiley’s repertoire combined original compositions as well as arrangements of songs she gathered from such diverse sources as Eastern European refugee camps and Appalachian folk tunes. Over a base of folk music, she adds the influences that surround us today, such as street singing, jazz, modernist dissonances, a touch of lounge music, rock and other influences that were hard to identify in her stylistic soup. Adding to the drummer, VOCO also incorporated body percussion such as foot stomps, finger snaps, rhythmic hand claps and body slaps in patterns that would change in an instant, all enhanced with body movements.
Vocally, she is reminiscent of a winsome folk singer flower child, and looks the part, but occasionally she sounds like a hard rock belter. Like her music, her preforming presence is also difficult to define.
At the start of the concert, the WCOD sang some selections by themselves but when Smiley came on stage, she took over. The chorus joined with her for a few selections, before they left the stage, handing it over to Smiley and VOCO. After that, the chorus reappeared occasionally, including the surprising multi-choir grand finale.
Smiley’s elections included some of her original songs such as “Famine Song,” “I’m So Glad” and “Sing About It.” Her arrangements ranged from two very old Appalachian “shape notes” folk songs, such as “There is More to Love” and “Devil’s Nine Questions,” to “They’re Red Hot,” originally composed by Robert Johnson.
Shape notes were a Southern invention that attempted to demystify printed music, mostly in the ever-present hymnals, by replacing the traditional note heads with shapes such as triangles and squares to represent the pitches. Since the notes were properly placed on the traditional music staff, other musicians could also read them.
After intermission, we changed gears again and there was something equally surprising and completely different. The Texas Woman’s University Concert Choir, under the impressive direction of Joni Jensen, blew our socks off with some stunning performances of modernist music.
The only complaint is that diction suffered from a lack of distinctly voiced consonants throughout their performance.
They started off with a work by Jensen called “Now,” an interesting combination of words and nonsense syllables that used a smaller secondary group of singers.
The next selection, “Valkyrie,” was the most intriguing of the evening. The work, by Kristopher Fulton, is a harmonically and structurally modernist piece and only used vocalizations instead of words. The effect was visual — a soundtrack to the Valkyries first appearing in the sky far off, then coming ever closer and sweeping up the battle-fallen heroes to whisk them off to Valhalla.
Libby Larsen’s “The Womanly Song of God” followed. It featured unison humming, tone clusters, pitched buzzing in the manner of György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna that was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, swoops that went up to a scream, and a range of other extra vocal effects. Larsen also included an uncredited soprano saxophone player. John David Paul’s satirical comment on the futility of educating woman was a welcome bit of humor. The chorus ended with a Smiley arrangement to round out the program. They were terrific.
All participants regrouped on stage for the grand finale augmented by high school women’s choirs from Dallas ISD. From the packed stage and even singers placed in the side aisles, they all joined in to sing a rousing version of Smiley’s “Have a Voice.” The music surrounded the audience and we all greeted the ending with a spontaneous standing ovation.