Voices Carry 

Local vocal ensemble succeeds at difficult task of singing unaccompanied

Local vocal ensemble succeeds at difficult task of singing unaccompanied

Nashville Chamber Singers

7 p.m. Dec. 11

Benton Chapel, Vanderbilt Univ.

For information, call 297-6358

Music City has probably not more than half a dozen “classical” vocal ensembles that consistently deliver fine-tuned major-league performances. Of that number, only a couple have the chutzpah to sing with no instrumental support whatsoever. One of them is the Nashville Chamber Singers, formerly known as the Scarritt-Bennett Singers, led by founder/director Angela Tipps. The group’s holiday concert, offered Saturday evening in Vanderbilt’s Benton Chapel, is to be completely unaccompanied—that’s like sashaying down the runway devoid of even a fig leaf.

In these millennial cyberdays, the range of sounds we can listen to is wide and multifarious. Computers are exponentially extending that range, producing sounds that bewitch and stir us. And yet, as exciting and rewarding as these developments are, the sound of the most ancient instrument—the unaccompanied human voice—has lost none of its preternatural might. This instrument’s scope is also wide and varied. It includes the keening shrill of an Appalachian lament, the raucous heterophony of a Mississippi slave work-shout, the subtle undulant unison of Austrian monks murmuring medieval plainsong, and the brassy acrobatics of male barbershop quartets—wonderful things all. But for some ears, the most wonderful use of unswaddled human voices happens when they sing together in mixed choirs.

This takes nothing away from exquisite feminine voices like the Anonymous Four, or from small male ensembles like the King’s Singers, or from the combined men’s and boys’ voices of the King’s College Choir. But the special blend of mixed voices, the colors and textures of the highs and lows, unadulterated by any other sound, is uniquely expressive. For the requisite depth and breadth and rich human color, choirs need to be of a certain size—say, 30 to 40 voices. Any more is too much: Massed choirs may create a dramatic impression, but with very few exceptions, their sound is nearer to fuzzy white pine than to polished mahogany, more stage set than solid castle.

This requisite dense and definite choral sound needs to be experienced live, in an accurately responsive space. The singers have to be able to hear one another. In many topflight ensembles, the voices are intermixed as quartets or quintets or octets, according to the number of parts being sung, so that every singer can hear clearly the intervals and chords being sounded—because when the singers have no instrument to prop their ears on, accuracy is very difficult to maintain. Pitches tend to sag, so that a song begun in D may end 30-odd measures later in D-flat or lower. And intervals, in particular dissonant intervals, tend to smear toward one another, even in brief suspensions.

Ears that know only church choirs or high school ensembles, or even choruses from distinguished universities and orchestras, will have rarely heard choral music accurately and expressively sung for more than a few measures at a time. The tie-dye effect comes to be taken as the norm. That’s why a really good ensemble, heard in a good space, may take us to places we have rarely if ever been.

NCS is a really good ensemble. Founded in the fall of 1996, it served until last year as choir-in-residence at the Scarritt-Bennett Center. During that time, it sang a wide range of sacred and secular repertory, ranging from Baroque to Broadway. The group of about three dozen voices, selected through auditions, includes some of Middle Tennessee’s most talented and accomplished singers, who sing also in other choruses, as professionals in churches, and in the city’s professional recording studios. The excellence and the compatibility of the voices is a tribute to director Tipps’ discernment as well as to the adaptability and versatility of these musicians.

Hoping to extend its accomplishments, NCS decided a year ago to break off from Scarritt-Bennett Center and pursue its fortunes independently of the United Methodist conference and retreat center. So far, the group appears to be achieving its goal: Last year, NCS released its first CD, Carols From Wightman Chapel, and this year it collaborated with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra on the world premiere of J. Mark Scearce’s Anima Mundi in a March performance at Ryman Auditorium that was recorded by National Public Radio’s Performance Today.

The upcoming holiday program exhibits these singers’ characteristic range and variety. It includes several selections by the 17th-century German Michael Praetorius, from whom J.S. Bach learned a thing or two, as well as selections from Gustav Holst (d. 1934) and William Walton (d. 1983). It also features compositions and arrangements by younger contemporary musicians who ought to be better known than they are—Andrew Carter, James McCray, John Rutter, and Arthur Warrell. NCS will sing in Latin and Spanish as well as in English; they’ll tackle polished classical jewels as well as a couple of rousing nog-sloshing carols.

After the concert, there will be a reception in Vanderbilt’s Tillett Lounge. The invitation promises “merriment,” and this ensemble’s track record guarantees that promise.

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