The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble has been picking up a full program of challenging works and performing them with just two weeks' rehearsal for more than 10 years now.
That doesn't make it any less impressive when, as recently occurred, the ensemble strings together pieces in German, Latin and Hebrew, then adds Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan (the language of Zoroastrian scripture) just to keep things interesting.
Directed by Ohio-based conductor Scott MacPherson for a few weeks each summer, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble concluded its two annual performances this past weekend: Friday, Aug. 3, at Luther Memorial Church on the UW-Madison campus, and Sunday, Aug. 5, at Covenant Presbyterian on the west side.
The choice of Covenant was significant for the choir, which had its first concert at the church in 2002.
The theme of this year's concert was "Reflections," applied loosely to encompass works from the ensemble's past and a five-part "light cycle" written by MacPherson's former colleague at Trinity University in Texas, Timothy Kramer.
Though the program was uniformly strong, I most loved the deceptively simple moments, like the well-tuned, unison male entrance in Felix Mendelssohn's "Richte mich Gott, Op. 78, No. 2," the whole of which the choir sang with subtlety and skill.
I thrilled to hear how perfectly Judith Bingham's sinister "The Drowned Lovers" dovetailed with the music that inspired it, C. V. Stanford's "The Bluebird." (Bingham requires that they be performed together for this very reason.)
And what a treat to hear a premiere by local composer Jerry Hui, written specifically for the ensemble. (Hui has also sung tenor with the IVE for the past four years.)
Based on three rural-themed poems by Ft. Atkinson poet Lorine Niedecker, Hui's song set was at once rich in texture and verbally clever. I could hear, in the rhythms and twisting melodies, the gnawing of muskrats and the jumping of a rabbit, followed by indignation at purloined lettuce.
In addition to several excellent solos (notably relative newcomer Sarah Leuwerke, on Bingham's "Drowned Lovers"), the choir offered up a prayerful rendition of "Parce mihi Domine"by Cristóbal de Morales and the lively, militaristic Spanish folk song "El Vito," accompanied by four hands piano.
Kramer's set, with its many languages and styles, was fun in part becuase it sounded so devilishly hard to sing (it reminded me of watching Olympic gymnastics). The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble made it sound easy, from the fiery "At toi Atrem," percussive and passionate, to the "oms" and swaying rhythms of "Gayatri Mantra."
Finally, "Abendlied," taken from the book of Luke, sounded like a benediction.
"Stay with us," it means, "for evening approaches, and the day is spent."