ArtsATL Review: Skylark Vocal Ensemble performs impressive array of songs for winter and spring

January 27, 2014

By Stephanie Adrian

Skylark Vocal Ensemble

On Friday night conductor Matthew Guard and his Skylark Vocal Ensemble offered a concert titled From Winter to Spring at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Buckhead.

Equipped with a theme exceedingly apropos for Atlanta’s chilly weather conditions, the Skylark singers entered a darkened sanctuary and opened with Moritz Hauptmann’s “Zigeunerlied.” Miniature reading lamps were attached to their individual scores and were the only source of illumination, causing the singers to look almost ghoulish as they sang of werewolves and witches on a winter’s night in the forest wild.

Overall it was an ambitious program for Skylark, a fledgling ensemble of professional singers that only comes together five weeks a year and has limited rehearsal time prior to each engagement. The group of 16 Boston and Atlanta-based individuals struggled with intonation early in the evening. And regrettably, the dry acoustics at Covenant Presbyterian provided the singers with none of the reverberation or echo effect that would have been thrilling in another space.

Francis Poulenc’s four-movement chamber cantata “Un soir de neige” (an evening of snow) followed “Zigeunerlied.” Poulenc composed it over a span of three days in December 1944 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. (Think The Last Metro for context.) The poetry by Paul Éluard tells of a man’s journey into wintery woods without provisions and of his eventual death. It is a homage to the Jewish poet Max Jacob, who died in the Drancy internment camp while en route to a concentration camp in Germany.

Matthew Guard’s singers did this work justice, particularly in the third song, “Bois meurtri.” The initital descending intervals were striking, and Skylark’s alto section contributed an especially beautiful color to the whole.

Skylark suggested the promise of spring with Benjamin Britten’s delightful “Five Flower Songs.” Each song can be attributed to a different poet. Robert Herrick, a British Renaissance–era poet and clergyman, penned “The Succession Of The Four Sweet Months.” For this song Britten assigns one month to each voice part, beginning with the sopranos who describe April’s mellow showers. The Skylark women tapered phrases elegantly, making way for the altos who sang of smiling May, the tenors who pleasingly crooned about June, and lastly, the baritones who bragged about the wealth of July. Layer upon layer was added as each quartet continued its melody. Skylark offered an impressive mezzo piano finish, finding the perfect balance of timbre and finesse in its final line: “April! May! June! July!”

Skylark also performed John Tavener’s delicate eight-movement work “Butterfly Dreams” this night. Each song is dramatically singular — for instance, the sixth song, “Butterfly,” which consists of a disjunct melodic line and demands an extreme vocal range from its interpreters. Tavener chose many of the texts — drawn from writers of different ethnicities and experiences — for their simplicity and intended that the music be sung as simply and naturally as possible. Even still, “Butterfly Dreams” is a challenging and sophisticated work, not easily mastered.

The evening came to a close with two dissimilar pieces: Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecelia” and an original arrangement of the famous jazz standard “Skylark.” The latter, a Peter Mansfield arrangement, was commissioned especially for the Skylark Vocal Ensemble and is evidently a sampling of things to come in late March, when the group reunites to perform a selection of love songs with a wide range of choral styles, languages and periods.

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