It’s been a long wait for choral music aficionados, but finally Britain’s much-recorded, multi-award-winning and world-reaching VOCES8 will make its Toronto debut, thanks to the determination of Canada’s Daniel Taylor, widely regarded as one of the best countertenors on the planet. the work and a leading figure in early music.
VOCES8 started informally in 2003 as a group of young choristers who loved to sing together.
“We started having sleepovers at our parents’ house,” said VOCES8 Artistic Director Barnaby Smith, the ensemble’s countertenor. Barnaby and his brother Paul, both former choristers at London’s Westminster Abbey, formally founded VOCES8 two years later when the group entered its first choral competition. Paul, who left the ensemble in 2016 to lead the very active charitable educational arm, the VOCES8 Foundation, is also an established composer. His setting of the Nunc Dimittis is included in the Toronto program, which takes the generic title ‘Lux Aeterna’ from a staple of the ensemble’s repertoire, a setting of the ‘Nimrod’ variation of Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. VOCES8’s recording of this sublime spiritual work has been viewed nearly four million times on YouTube.
Daniel Taylor was naturally very aware of VOCES8, but it took a chance meeting to clear the way for the ensemble’s debut in Toronto.
About six years ago, Taylor was in London making a recording in the Sony studios when he met a woman whose face seemed very familiar.
“Coincidentally, I had watched one of VOCES8’s videos a few minutes before that,” recalls Taylor.
The woman turned out to be VOCES8 soprano Andrea Haines.
“That chance meeting eventually led me to sing for Daniel,” said the long-serving VOCES8 member.
It was the beginning of a professional connection that allowed Taylor to build a relationship with VOCES8 that fueled his decision to bring the group to Toronto. But like so many other things, COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s lives and VOCES8 was unable to tour.
Taylor, who, in addition to being head of the Theater of Early Music, the vocal and instrumental ensemble he founded 20 years ago while still based in Montreal, has been a professor at the University of Toronto’s music faculty for ten years. During the pandemic, as classes went online, Taylor continued to provide students with enriching experiences by involving leading professional artists in virtual workshops. Andrea Haines was one of them.
As the pandemic restrictions began to lift, Taylor contacted VOCES8’s travel agent, only to find that they were firmly booked and tried to make up for delayed appointments.
“Then in August,” Taylor said, “I got a call out of the blue. ‘We’ve got a date for you, October 11th.’ It was kinda short notice, but I thought if we postpone now, there can be no saying how long we have to wait. So I immediately said we would take it.”
VOCES8 presents a repertoire that extends from the late Renaissance and Baroque to very recent compositions. Although best known as an a cappella ensemble, they have also worked with instrumental soloists and ensembles.
The group’s just-released recording featuring violinist Jack Liebeck of Paul Drayton’s arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ beloved “The Lark Ascending” is likely to become one of their worldwide hits.
The ‘Lux Aeterna’ program includes a range of sacred music – from the English William Byrd, who died nearly 400 years ago, to the contemporary American composer Jake Runestad. The spiritual foundations, in both music and poetry, transcend specific religious traditions to provide comfort and hope in what Taylor calls “the partially illuminated darkness we now live in.”
Whether it’s the climate crisis, right-wing extremism. or the war in Ukraine, the world has become an unusually troubled place. Taylor points to the grief many felt at the Queen’s death as easy to understand in this broader context of global turmoil.
“My Soul there is a Country,” one of Hubert Parry’s “Songs of Farewell,” was sung at the Queen’s funeral and is featured on VOCES8’s Toronto program, as well as the British composer’s verses from Psalm 122, ” I was Smooth”. Parry wrote this now famous anthem for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Since then it has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch.
In an unusual room, VOCES8 agreed to Taylor’s request to include some of his students and professional choristers from as far away as Vancouver in the Toronto performance. This mass choir of nearly 50 voices, which will sing three pieces in the second half of the program, is likely to raise the roof of St. James Cathedral in “I was Glad”.
“I’ve told the choristers to come well prepared. We have very little rehearsal time,” Taylor said.
VOCES8 will arrive in Toronto, the ensemble’s only Canadian stop on a three-week North American tour, in time to conduct an evening choir workshop at St. Paul’s Basilica (83 Power St.) on October 10.
For those who have yet to experience the uplifting power of choral music, Barnaby Smith has a message.
“The human voice has the power to communicate in a way that instruments don’t. We are programmed from birth to respond to the tone and quality of a person’s voice. And when it’s unaccompanied, it’s very naked, very bare and very direct. Even if you don’t just hear, but see VOCES8, you see eight people working to achieve perfect harmony. I think there’s something really nice about that.”
“Lux Aeterna,” October 11; St. James’s Cathedral, 65 Church St.; more information and tickets at rcmusic.com/tickets/seats/258001
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