What I was busy at on Sunday afternoon was a potluck at B's church, which I attended as a chance for her to introduce me to some of these people. She's active in the choir, which rehearses Thursday evenings, and there was this man there who was apologizing for having to miss the upcoming rehearsal because he was singing in a secular choral concert. And his description of it sounded so interesting that I inquired further, so he organized a ticket for me. That was nice. So on Thursday, while B. was at rehearsal, I drove up to Ladera, a tiny community in the hills above Menlo Park, to hear the Collage Vocal Ensemble.
The concert was held in the Ladera Community Church, as tiny as the village it's in, which is fortunate because its small size negated any bad effects of the not-entirely-dead but extremely unresonant acoustics. The program contained a large number, about two dozen, short pieces, mostly acappella, a few accompanied by piano, one chorus from Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden with cello continuo, and one folksong (an American variant of the Irish song "The Two Sisters") with guitar. There were a few carols and other Christmasy premonitions, but it was mostly secular works by classical composers running up to John Rutter, with the one folk song, an arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," and, surprise, the Night Waltzes from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. (A piece I have trouble believing in; the people I've met who actually live near the Arctic Circle are used to the long summer twilight and don't find it disconcerting.) Most of the pieces were in English, some in German, and one in Finnish, a folk lullaby set by Toivo Kuula, the only composer of the evening I didn't know, and who must have been a relative of P.D.Q. Bach because his life dates were given in the program as 1783-1718. (He actually lived 1883-1918; I don't know how that typo happened, and I didn't detect any others.)
Singing a wide variety of pieces, mostly unaccompanied with nothing but a rolled piano chord beforehand to set the pitch, the chorus proved itself impressively able, even of professional quality, in many of the pieces. I was particularly knocked out by five soloists delivering a modestly complex Elizabethan madrigal by Thomas Weelkes with the jollity of the old Oregon Shakespeare Festival madrigalists at their finest. The Finnish hymn was beautiful, as were the Stephen Foster, the Bach, and many other pieces. The only problem with the Bach was that it lacked power; but the strength of a Gustav Holst choral folksong astonished me, and pieces by Britten and Vaughan Williams matched it. The modern English repertoire is clearly where this group is at their best, though they're also good on things like Mozart and Haydn canons, especially if they spread out as they did for the Mozart and take advantage of antiphonal effects.
The one piece of negative advice I'd give this ensemble is, lay off the Brahms vocal quartets. Keeping the harmonies in tune defeated them, and the imbalance of the ensemble (11 women and only 5 men) was fatal in Brahms' layered and balanced approach. The men's voices turned weak and the women's hard and metallic. It was strange to hear the same people turn around and do the Holst with such simultaneous strength and beauty. There was nothing minuscule or diminished about the men there, or in a Vaughan Williams piece for the men alone.
I'm guessing that a lot of it had to do with comfort level, and this was most evident in the solos. Trained choral singers know what to do with an Elizabethan madrigal, but in Sondheim most of them lacked forwardness and power, what actors communicate through stage presence. They were pretty well in tune there, and in the solos in Britten's "Shepherd's Carol" (with nonsense words by W.H. Auden), but less so in those of the shepherds' chorus from Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. So I think they need to learn what they're best at, and focus their considerable abilities on that. But they shouldn't be afraid to explore as well, because the variety of this concert was part of its delight.
(Also the cookies afterwards. Don't forget the cookies.)