Vocal ensemble celebrates holidays and 40 years of music

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

The Cayuga Vocal Ensemble, a mainstay in the Ithaca area, celebrated 40 years of quality a cappella choral singing last Sunday (Dec. 6) in Ithaca’s First Presbyterian Church. In a concert both varied and holiday oriented, director Carl Johengen and his group of 20 singers spelled out lovely and beautifully blended tonality in selections from Byrd to Bruckner.

William Byrd’s reflective and haunting Mass for Four Voices is an overlooked that was brought vividly to life by these ensemble singers, some of who hail from Broome County. Partly responsible for the art of the madrigal as well as early organ music, Byrd was a protégée of Thomas Tallis whom he no doubt tried to emulate in his compositions. This moving and quietly declamatory piece in its five sections was very well done.

Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter was mesmerizing in it simplistic beauty and deeply personal text by Christina Rossetti. Anton Bruckner’s rendition of Ave Maria is one of the loveliest choral pieces ever composed. and the ensemble seemed to acknowledge the reverence as well as the musical terrain with both rare emotional restraint and plaintive beauty.

Healey Willian’s The Three Kings is a work that must be heard along with the reading of its magical text to be fully appreciated. So moving is the brief piece in its description of the manger scene in which the three kings, arriving and acknowledging the need to rest, are welcomed and encouraged to “kiss the feet of God.” Why isn’t this composer, who died in 1968, more recognized despite having his choral and organ pieces programmed with some regularity? His more than 800 works are not often showcased, which is puzzling.

Two Carols, by Jaroslav Vajda and CVE director Johengen, showed both a delightful variance and spelled out the true hope of the season. According to the program notes, Vajda wrote more than 200 original hymns as well as a canon of hymnal translations. The concert closed with two seasonal staples, the Wexford Carol and the Sussex Carol.

It’s no mystery why this choral ensemble has endured and maintained a level of excellency. Its tone is clean, uniform and well-balanced. The only criticism, which may be unfair without a score to look at, was that, at times, it seemed as though the sound could have been larger, considering there were 20 competent singers and some very fine acoustics.

Following the concert, a delighted audience joined in the group’s “sing along” of three Christmas favorites: Deck the Halls; Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Note: A gala cabaret celebrating the group’s 40 years will be held on Saturday, March 12, 2016. For ticket information to this event or general inquiries, visit cayuga-vocal.org.

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