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Bella Voce Women's Chorus of Vermont: "Now Let Us Sing!"

CD Review by Elisabeth Crean, Seven Days, October 10, 2007
Do you ever find one song on a CD that mesmerizes you? You reach for the replay button thinking, Just one more time, and an hour-long car ride elapses to the soundtrack of one hypnotically good tune.

Bella Voce’s album of Gwyneth Walker’s choral music, Now Let Us Sing!, marks the delightful debut recording for the talented Vermont women’s ensemble. Seventeen energetic Walker compositions draw on a lively mix of sources — Quaker hymns, American poetry and traditional spirituals. It is the penultimate track, “Peace I Ask of Thee, O River,” that quietly calls for repetition. This ethereally beautiful setting of a humble campfire ditty encapsulates strengths that run through the entire disc. The song becomes an emotionally compelling supplication as musical layers build — instruments and vocals weave together, dynamics swell and harmonies intensify. Lilting melodies and sweet sonorities illuminate a simple but moving text.

“Peace I Ask” turns plain language into prayer: “From the hills I gather courage / Visions of the day to be.” On the hundredth listen, I still get a little choked up by it. And find myself wanting to send copies of the CD to Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Crazy powerful stuff.

Vermont composer Walker lets the poetry guide her pen, and evidently finds joy in bringing lyrics to life. A favorite technique she employs — word painting — goes back to Renais-sance madrigal masters and Baroque boys such as Bach and Handel. For example, images in “Peace I Ask” of falling rain and flowing streams manifest in musical motifs of racing piano figures and sinuous lines of brass accompanying the chorus.

Choral conductor Dawn Willis keeps Bella Voce’s singers tightly focused. You can almost feel them standing on the edge of their risers, leaning into the next phrase, smiling with ebullience at the challenge of performing Walker’s witty, wondrous works. Their execution is flawless: crisp consonants, perfect pitch and phrasing. Pianist Shirley Smith supports the chorus energetically, augmented on some tracks by a supple brass quintet and occasional fillips of flute and percussion.

Since Willis founded Bella Voce in 2004, the group has put on topnotch concerts, and this CD holds up the same high standard. A concert program this Sunday, October 14, at 4 p.m. at the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph features many songs from the recording. During intermission, I expect to get an early start on my Christmas shopping at the merch table.