The San Francisco-based Volti has been a consistent innovator in vocal music for over 30 years. The mission of the 25-member a capella ensemble is to think outside the box of choral music, and to continue expanding that landscape by commissioning new works and championing the music of living, breathing composers. In its latest CD House of Voices, Volti brings its exceptional musicality to the table once again.
The first piece, by Yu-Hui Chang, uses text from two poems by Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003. Both movements of Being: Two Collins Songs address personal awareness of both the mental and physical realms. However, “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” is energetic, employing contrapuntal lines and conveying the conversational tone of the text, while “The Night House” relays more vertical chordal structures with a rich, though more subdued sound.
Ted Hearne’s five-movement work Privilege is the most wide-ranging and dramatic of the pieces on this disc. As the composer chosen for Volti’s 2009-10 Choral Arts Laboratory, he has asked a great deal of Volti in this adventurous work, and they have certainly delivered. The first and third movements use texts written by Hearne himself, from the standpoint of a privileged member of American society, and the texts of the second and fourth movements are snippets from an interview with The Wire producer David Simon that address the income divide between rich and poor, while the final movement, “We Cannot Leave,” is a setting of an anti-Apartheid Song translated into English. The tart harmonies and sinewy lines of this composition seem to be recorded at closer range than the other pieces, bringing a sense of intimacy to the piece, placing the listener very near the ensemble as if in a small, intimate performance space.
By comparison, the works that immediately follow seem almost conservative, although they are no less elegant. In Daglarym / My Mountains, Donald Crockett attempts to recreate the landscape of Tuva by using melodic and text material from Tuvan folk songs gathered by musician and researcher Katherine Vincent. Crockett stays largely within Western harmonic language in this piece, straying only occasionally into a slightly nasal singing technique during the interpretation of carefully chosen Tuvan words. Eric Moe’s The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away is a characteristically energetic and effective setting of an equally characteristically quirky choice of text dealing with antidepressants that come packaged with… tiny ponies. It’s disconcertingly whimsical and somber at once. As with the Yu-Hui Chang piece mentioned earlier, Wayne Peterson creates two clear, no-nonsense settings of texts by a single poet—in this case, Delmore Schwartz—in this case about the beauty of art and of contemplating the free-spiritedness of childhood as respite from the pains of contemporary life.
The big finish on House of Voices is the 15-minute tribute to the power of the moon, Luna, Nova Luna, by Volti composer-in-residence Mark Winges. This lush, dramatic work combining Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir includes a cornucopia of texts with moon references, and really does travel to the moon and back in its range of dramatic contrast and musical language, laid bare by deft combinations of child and adult voices. Winges is obviously extremely familiar with the voices of Volti, and supremely comfortable working in the realm of choral music in general, as if driving a well-loved car that has been in the family for ages.
Within the choral music world this recording might be considered crazy, heady stuff, but to these ears it is first and foremost inspiring, magnificently performed music. Virtuosic? Absolutely. If this recording doesn’t make every composer who listens to it crave to write choral music, and in particular for Volti, I don’t know what will.