By Steve Jansen
Better than: Sunday dinner at the folks’ house.
Okay, okay. What’s New Times doing reviewing a choral group? It’s gotta be some stale, pretentious stuff, accessible only to blue-haired old geezers, high-brow music connoisseurs, and aristocrats, yes? You’ve even heard that there are tea and crumpets during intermission like at an English cricket match at the Sussex County Cricket Club, right?
Uh, wrong. The Phoenix Bach Choir is truly a hidden gem in these parts. If not for a friend who freelances for the group, I would still be naïve to an ensemble that has been around since 1958.
The PBC is known across the globe as one of the best choral groups in the world, with various releases on Chandos, the largest independent classical label on the planet. And for music that can be typically typecast as “classical,” they are doing some of the most progressive and accessible stuff within any music genre in the Valley.
Sunday evening’s Vox Humana program at downtown’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (another undiscovered Phoenix treasure that the PBC calls home) featured reinterpretations of masterworks, ranging from 19th century to contemporary composers still living today. The crowd was a nice mixture of teenagers who actually looked happy to be there, 20-to-40somethings, and some old-timers.
People seemed to come dressed how they wanted, whether it was suit and tie regalia or sports coat with jeans. The atmosphere was chill enough that I didn’t feel guilty that the crease in my dress pants hadn’t been sharpened with an iron for more than three years. On the other hand, I’m glad they handed out show programs so I could cover up the embarrassing hole in the crotch.
The 24-deep choir (12 males, 12 females) began with a “Prelude” by Ola Gjeilo, and Gabriel Fauré’s “Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11.” Both pieces, showcasing light organ accompaniment by Dr. Kimberly Marshall, were sung in Latin. It’s a good thing the program contained English translations as well as brief composer bios so that I could wrap my head around each piece’s mood and influence.
As the group delved into “Rejoice in the Lamb” by Benjamin Britten, a troubled British bloke who spent much of his existence in the insane asylum, I began to notice that the choir had this special way of interpreting each word like a stand-alone art piece rather than hurriedly rushing through like a hyperactive slam poet. I felt like each soprano, alto, tenor, and bass vocalist traveled the depths of each written character from ascender to descender.
Charles Bruffy and the gang (www.bachchoir.org)
At the program’s halfway point, Charles Bruffy, the choir’s artistic director and conductor, addressed the audience in a very personable manner and announced that choir mainstay Robert Comeaux was performing his last show. Comeaux and wife Juliette, an integral part of the choir’s administrative operations, are soon moving to New Orleans. The group honored him with a perfect interpretation of “O Mistress Mine” Adagietto, a slow tempo tune with words by Shakespeare and music by Matthew Harris that featured a tenor solo by Comeaux.
Following a beautiful rendition of “Mr. Eyes for Beauty Pine” by Herbert Howells, the choir performed my favorite, perpetually chill-inducing piece of the evening: Arvo Pärt’s “The Beatitudes.” The setting and the acoustic properties of the cathedral, which was completed in 1920, couldn’t have been more appropriate for the minimalist and dark composition that included lots of silence and space.
Here are the soul-stirring words:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. Amen
Moments after the choir uttered “amen,” organist Marshall struck a single, abrasive chord and held it for minutes. Imagine a 3,000 pipe organ throwing a gothic temper tantrum, or a soundtrack to one of those nasty mother-daughter interactions between Joan Crawford and L'Enfant terrible Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce. For a moment, I felt like the crowd may become restless and riot, à la 1913 Paris over Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.
Phoenix Bach Choir (www.myspace.com/phoenixbachchoir)
Bruffy again spoke to the audience and introduced, in detail, their final piece of the evening, “Cantos Sagrados” by James MacMillan. Bruffy primed the crowd for what they could expect and how we might react, saying things like, “Expect very visceral reactions,” and “Applause at the piece’s end may feel intrusive.”
Now, I normally don’t enjoy people suggesting how I should/could feel about art, especially when it come to music. It’s like exposing a piece’s insecurities and shortcomings before it even takes place. But Bruffy was dead-on about the uncertainty of clapping at the conclusion because it didn’t feel appropriate.
Three distinct movements -- Identity, Virgin of Guadelupe, and Sun Stone -- harbored a novelistic narrative arc property in the voice of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Frenetic vocals that upped the tension transitioned to moody interludes, giving listeners a chance to breath and contemplate the presentation. When the piece ended, the audience stared at the choir and they stared back. Nothingness ensued. Then, finally, the sound of one hand clapping turned into a standing ovation.
Now that I am finally hip to the Phoenix Bach Choir, I hope they get more props for their amazing sound and attention from a broader fan base. If anything, they reminded me that the human voice is the most beautiful and underrated instrument to music.
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Personal bias: My answer to the token classical music question, “Which do you prefer, Beethoven or Bach?,” is always the latter.
Random detail: Bruffy has an adorable daschund named Tootsie Roll.