Concert Review: Skylark Vocal Ensemble — Sublime Storytime

By Susan Miron

Storytelling is big business in concert halls these days, and as a yarn-spinner Sarah Walker is in a class of her own.

Each Skylark Vocal Ensemble concert I’ve heard has been an extraordinary experience, from the music chosen, to the artfully designed program booklets, the preconcert talks by the group’s eloquent artistic director/conductor Matthew Guard, and, most importantly, the ravishing voices of its 20 or so extraordinary singers. After each performance, I think, “Well, this can’t be topped.” But on Saturday at Chestnut Hill’s Church of the Redeemer, Skylark took on what Guard called “probably one of our most off-the-wall” concepts: a story-choral concert featuring the gifted storyteller (who has worked with Skylark on four previous projects) Sarah Walker. The performance took place on Valentine’s Day, which also happened to be the release day of Skylark’s brand new CD, Once Upon a Time.

For the concert (and the disc) Guard and Walker chose two fairy tales, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” Each of the yarns was cut by Walker to last a half hour. Neither narrative bore much resemblance to its upbeat Disney version. “We felt we were creating something new, a seamless choral/storytelling experience in which the music enhanced the story,” Guard explained. “A lot of choral pieces are very short and in different languages. What if we could pick some stories that people think they know and put them with music they don’t know?”

In “Snow White,” Guard explained, “We were going for a spooky, scary vibe,” which he found in Francis Poulenc’s “Un soir de neige” (A Night of Snow), which is set in a terrifying forest in winter. Three other pieces of Poulenc ended up being included. Other composers whose music was chosen to illustrate the stories were Leonard Bernstein (“Court Song”), Ralph Vaughan Williams  (“Three Shakespeare Songs”), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Velmo Tormis, the popular  choral composer Morten Lauridsen, and Robert Lucas de Pearsall, whose Victorian piece “Lay a Garland” was used for when the dwarfs put Snow White in a glass coffin. “The music chose the stories,” said Guard. Skylark’s stitching and dovetailing ends up working seamlessly because of composer Benedict Sheehan, who was given the task of connecting the dots. He enhanced the dialogue by writing a musical score that was played underneath the storyteller’s voice,  serving up transitions from one song to another. His 14 short compositions work uncannily well, particularly those made for “Snow White.”

Skylark Vocal Ensemble performing in 2019 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Newburyport. Photo: Facebook.

The church’s acoustics were perfect for Skylark, who recorded this and four other CDs in this location. Skylark’s concerts are usually thematically based, although one of their most impressive was a departure, last fall’s Rachmaninov’s “Vespers,” with three world-class basses (Arts Fuse review).

Storytelling is big business in concert halls these days, and as a yarn-spinner Walker is in a class of her own. Standing next to the front pews on the side of the chorus, Walker, the daughter of two traditional Appalachian storytellers, made superb use of her mellifluous speaking voice, which manages to be both soothing and seductive. She can spin words, when needed, to conjure up enchantment, drama, sorrow, ebullient joy, and suspense. Sometimes Walker talks to the listener as if she is sharing a secret; at other times she effortlessly whips up the oral frenzy necessary to generate anticipation, anxiety, or dread. A children’s  librarian, she has practiced her craft in front of some very tough audiences — 6-year-olds.

Skylark’s singing was sensitive and sensual (listen to the CD or on YouTube if you want evidence). The soloists were phenomenal. Soprano Alissa Ruth Suver, as the mermaid, performed an otherworldly Swedish song, “i-i-o hi-ho,” via what could be called ethereal yodeling. The amazing soprano Sarah Moyer and alto Doug Dodson sang “Court Song” (from Bernstein’s The Lark) for when the Little Mermaid is on land and cannot speak. Alto Carrie Charon soloed in a piece by Tormis. The a cappella choir was polished and responsive throughout; the tenors and basses were especially fine. (Guard has described a cappella (without instruments) as being “like a big trust fall.”

The climax of the mermaid’s story is exquisitely memorable: Walker is accompanied by “Soneto de la noche” —  Lauridsen’s gorgeous music cradling a love poem by Pablo Neruda.

The group’s next concert, Sub Rosa: Secrets Revealed  (a collaboration with best-selling author Dan Brown and composer Gregory W. Brown), is set for April 21 through 25. In the program booklet, Guard characterizes his Skylark colleagues: “They are not only great voices, but also great minds and hearts.”  Trust me, Skylark never disappoints.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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