When English vocal octet Voces8 first visited Minnesota in 2009 and 2010, they arrived as an early music ensemble. Perhaps that’s because it came courtesy of the Rose Ensemble, the since-disbanded specialists in early and European vocal music.
But Voces8 has seen his star rise, and not just because of what he can do with Renaissance polyphony. He also commissions new music and has adopted the popular format of his fellow Englishmen, the King’s Singers, adding intriguing arrangements of contemporary pop and vintage jazz to their concerts.
All of the above was on the schedule Sunday afternoon when Voces8 performed an enjoyable and at times quite emotional concert at a packed Bethlehem Lutheran church in south Minneapolis.
Yes, there was ethereal, uplifting music from the 1500s by Thomas Tallis and Tomas Luis de Victoria, as well as early Baroque fare from Orlando Gibbons and Claudio Monteverdi.
But nearly half the program was made up of living composers, including British folk rockers Mumford & Sons and Kate Rusby. And then there was jazz, with that ensemble of three women and five men best mimicking the Swingle Singers or an expanded Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Voces8 may have come to us as a specialist, but now they’re a wonderfully versatile band, singing everything with exquisite balance, blending and technique.
Tallis’ “O Nata Lux” was heavenly enough to make listeners feel like they were floating on a cloud. Soprano Andrea Haines made it even more beautiful with her soaring descending lines.
But the peak of the concert may have come when they used not eight singers, but five. The six Monteverdi madrigals that opened the second half of the concert proved a melting pot of fiery passion, a deeply gripping elegy to a beloved singer shot down at an early age.
The songs may have been composed for secular purposes, but they were delivered with sacred reverence, each outstanding voice presented with solo lines, the stone walls around the singers providing the ideal resonance.
Still, the harmonies are Voces8’s calling card, and they rarely looked better than when they premiered “Nocturne” by Twin Cities composer Jocelyn Hagen, who added Melissa Morey’s sonic French horn. Hagen set a poem by Todd Boss from Minneapolis to a richly textured soundscape that was dreamy but with a hint of sadness.
And those folk-rock adaptations were adorable, both imaginatively arranged by Jim Clements. Mumford & Sons’ ‘Timshel’ was given hints of the harmonies used in the form-note singing – an inspired choice, given that the English band are in love with Appalachian folk. And Rusby’s “Underneath the Stars” was a sad ballad heavy with heartache.
They provided a deeply engaging interlude amidst a series of fun jazz standards. “Come Fly With Me” and “Fly Me to the Moon” were combined to splendid effect, Haines’ soprano pairing beautifully with the tenor vocals of Minneapolis-based former Cantus member Blake Morgan, who is the only American in Voces8. He also took the lead in an airy version of Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right”.
A standing ovation gave rise to a final slice of jazz, a delicately singing “I’ve Got the World on a String” demonstrating once again that Voces8 are among the few vocal groups that can do so much and so well.
Rob Hubbard is a classical music writer from Twin Cities. [email protected]