News Reviews

The Barre Montpelier Times Argus

Music Review: Solaris proves its mettle in substantial music

By Jim Lowe Staff Writer

April 11, 2022

Watch a video of the concert

The Solaris Vocal Ensemble has long been considered one of Vermont’s finest choirs, but its latest program, which debuted Friday at the Waterbury Congregational Church, sponsored by Capital City Concerts, featured some truly penetrating offerings.

With “Delightful Pairings,” conducted by founder Dawn Willis, vocal works were paired often to advantage, some not. But throughout, the 20 disciplined voices not only sang with accuracy, beauty and warmth, they delivered some very special music. And complementing the vocal sound in three songs was flutist Karen Kevra, who also played three most compelling solo works. The program was repeated in St. Albans and Burlington.

The real masterpiece of the evening was “Hymne au Soleil (Hymn to the Sun)” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), perhaps the greatest woman composer since Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). This superficially simple song was rich with complex modern tonal language that gave it a unique haunting joy. Willis and her able singers delivered this gorgeous music with heart.

It could easily have been a disaster for its pairing, the world premiere of “The Brain Is Wider than the Sky,” based on the Emily Dickinson Poem, by James Stewart, VPR Classical Host and Solaris member. But it wasn’t. Stewart’s song was mellow but striking, and truly beautiful. Although it could have used the power of a bit more interesting harmonic language, it wasn’t a disappointment after the Boulanger.

The other real masterpiece on the program only involved one person. Claude Debussy’s 1913 “Syrinx” for solo flute was written as incidental music for a play, however it has become a significant part of the flute repertoire. Kevra delivered a performance that was very personal and deeply penetrating. It was gorgeous.

Kevra, founder and artistic director of Capital City Concerts, performed two other solo flute works, including the charming but inconsequential “The Children Are Playing” by Carl Nielsen. However, Kevra made good sense of Edgar Varese’ “Density 21.5” (the density of platinum), a knotty piece that still challenges the listener as well as the flutist, despite being written in 1936 (revised in 1946). Kevra delivered an impressive performance.

The other truly striking pairing brought together Johannes Brahms and American composer Samuel Barber. “O Schöne Nacht (Oh Lovely Night!) was lyrically luscious as only Brahms can be, thanks in part to the excellent piano of Melissa Ewell. “Sure on This Shining Night,” with Barber’s subtle but spicy harmonic language, was pure joy. Also pure joy was the late Vermont choral director Robert De Cormier’s arrangement of the spiritual “Let Me Fly.” Willis paired that with the contrapuntal “Vivat Musica” by contemporary Czech composer Jií Laburda for a spirited opening of the program.

Also notable were two spirituals in unusually sweet arrangements: “Give Me Jesus” by Larry L. Fleming and “Deep River” by Moses Hogan. Barber’s “The Coolin’” was paired with the charming “O My Luve’s Like A red, Red Rose” by René Clausen, joined by Kevta and cellist Steve Olson.

A.J. Banach, Solaris’ conducting intern, ably led “Love Walked In” by George and Ira Gershwin, pure schmaltz. The program closed with Hoagy Carmichael’s charming “Skylark” and Dan Davison’ Latin-upbeat “El Grillo.”

Again, Solaris proved itself a fine choir, but this time in substantial music by Brahms, Boulanger and Barber. Why not a little more.


The Barre Montpelier Times Argus

Music Review: Solaris brings depth to holiday vocal music

By Jim Lowe Staff Writer

Dec 15, 2019

WATERBURY – It’s the season of choral singing, and one group certainly shone Friday at the Congregational Church, also called he White Meeting House. The Burlington-based Solaris Vocal Ensemble proved its mettle as among the best in the state.

Dawn Willis directed the 23-voice choir in its annual holiday program, “Sing We Now of Christmas!” scheduled also for Charlotte and Burlington. Most was traditional holiday fare, albeit in some spectacular arrangements. But there also was some particularly unusual and rewarding music, as well.

Musically most rewarding was the music of Felix Mendelssohn, three parts of the composer’s unfinished oratorio, “Christus,” Op. 97. Three choruses with ensemble members as soloists illustrated just how magnificent this music was, coming from a devout Lutheran.

More than that, these three choruses and solos showcased Solaris as the fine ensemble it is. It was clear that individually the voices were attractive and used with skill, but under Willis, they nearly always blended beautifully. More importantly, Willis guided them through the music compellingly. With Susan Summerfield, performing the orchestra’s role on organ, it was high-end music making.

Willis is one of Vermont’s foremost choral conductors, having served as assistant director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus during its Robert De Cormier heyday, as well as founding and directing Bella Voce Women’s Chorus and Solaris. More than Willis’ ability to bring together the 23 voices as an orchestra, it was her musical depth and understanding that made Friday’s performance compelling.

Another great work was the Gloria from Dominick Argento’s “The Masque of Angels.” The traditional Latin Mass text is given real drama with Argento’s striking rhythm and harmonic language. Although Solaris had a tendency to “round out the edges” rather than embrace them, with excellent piano by Evan Allen, this was a moving and arresting experience.

Perhaps the most beautiful moment was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana.” The men of Solaris achieved the gentle and intimate lyricism of this setting of the Robert Frost poem. It was a gorgeous performance of a masterpiece.

A particular treat was the solo playing by harpist Rebecca Kauffman, one of the accompanying musicians. Among the three arrangements by legendary harpist Carlos Salzedo, perhaps the most compelling was the complex and imaginative Paraphrase on “Away in a Manger” (to the tune of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton”). Kauffman played with a natural flow and virtuosity, bringing out the appropriate melodies within a rich structure, as well as a deep musicality. It was irresistible.

There were other special moments. “Facta est cum Angelo,” by Rafaella Aleotti (c.1574-c.1646) enjoyed a beautifully gentle polyphony, and was written by one of the few women composers of the era. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” received a spectacular and harmonically rich arrangement – Kauffman’s harp and all – by James Stewart, a Solaris tenor better known as a VPR Classical host. It was a world premiere.

With Solaris, Willis has attracted a fine array of voices and formed them into an excellent vocal ensemble that delivers compelling musical performances. This concert proves the Solaris’ capabilities extend well beyond holiday fare. I look forward to future concerts.