Review: Vox 3 Collective, Spirit Within: Songs of Faith & Contemplation

Vox 3 Collective, Spirit Within: Songs of Faith & Contemplation

13 Aug, 2013 Kelly O'Neil

Chicago’s modern vocal Vox 3 Collective looks beyond life’s daily endeavors into the deeper meanings of existence with Spirit Within: Songs of Faith & Contemplation.  The album has a more serious tone with less tongue-in-cheek metaphors replaced with open-ended existentialism.

Music Director James Morehead gathered the entire collective at Bethany United Church of Christ in Chicago to record the ensemble accapella piece “A Cherokee Blessing” with traditional text by the Native American tribe set to original music.  The beautiful madrigal benediction boasts an interesting chord progression through the end of the piece.  A spookier feeling is given to “A New Thing” which features only the women of Vox 3 singing in four parts with Finance Manager and soprano Magaly Cordero as soloist.  The church lends the perfect reverb effects for this live recording of Morehead’s accapella setting of Isaiah 43: 18-19.

Another Biblical piece is a composition by General Manager and pianist Myron Silberstein with “Psalm XIII.”  Soprano Alexia Kruger displays a strong, piercing voice appropriate for the modern heavy-handed piano and big, bold declarations.  A wide variety of spiritual thoughts and musings are found on the album including the five “Merton Songs” with texts by the Catholic Trappist monk Frank Merton performed by Artistic Director and producer, baritone Brian von Rueden and the four pieces of the “Rumi Cycle” featuring Programming Chair soprano Ashlee Hardgrave channeling the Persian mystic with her signature high notes.

The two “Zen Koans” are mysteriously captivating settings of Buddhist parables featuring tenor Nicholas Pulikowski singing especially lofty in “The Real Way” accompanied by Morehead plus violin and alto flute giving the pieces more depth and transience.  Additional instrumentation is a nice addition to the Vox 3 repertoire, however in von Rueden and local poet Aaron De Lee’s two “Nameless” works it is distracting.  A cello is heard in the opening of “Hope and a Hem” adding a nice touch however, the piece teeters on bedlam with the addition of Morehead and two dueling vocalists.  Soprano Meghan Guse and mezzo-soprano Gretchen Adams do not blend well further hindered by differences in enunciation and overall dynamic imbalance of the parts.

Vox 3 Collective not only showcases and debuts new modern pieces but encourages education of the historical and cultural significance of the works it presents.  This is aptly demonstrated with the inclusion of two different interpretations of the story of Judith.  The first piece by local composer Randall West uses the texts from an epic poem found in the Nowell Codex.   Whether the story is based on truth or merely a myth is unknown but the tale summarizes how pious Judith liberates her people by trusting in God as she infiltrates the enemy army camp and beheads their captain.  Soprano Laura Pinto is a lovely choice for the work with her remarkable enunciation and sweet tone.  “Laughed He and Shouted” has Morehead racing along the keyboard like a runaway train.  In “His Head Rolled” the piano has crushingly heavy rolls and dramatic crescendos that rise with the vocals as the song climaxes.  The conclusion “Judith Had Come to Her Home” slowly draws out each phrase and Pinto captivatingly maintains excellent control with her quiet pure high notes.

Fellow Chicago composer Amos Gillespie instead chose the Apocrypha text for the story of Judith.  Soprano Sara Salas is another charismatic vocalist, however the piece is less poetic and more narrative with the piano helping to fill in the spaces between verses.  Only during “She Went down the Hill” does Morehead’s part get interesting with a brief solo when Judith casts her spell upon the guards and then the punctuated downbeats to the lyrics, “cut off his head.”

Spirit Within: Songs of Faith & Contemplation is a less personal collection as far as camaraderie is concerned but on a more artistic level has the potential for a deep impact on listeners with its diverse ruminations.

Reviewers Name: Kelly O’Neil
Rating:   4 stars