When director Michael Alfera took the stage on Friday night, clad in skinny jeans, buttoned-up shirt, bow tie and close-cut jacket, it was clear that both performers and audience were already pumped. This organization has come together quickly, and had already impressed a lot of people before they’d even opened their mouths at this weekend’s debut concert.
Now we know they can deliver.
Zipper is a wonderful space for the style and complexity of these fine choral selections, serving as a resonant canvas for vibrant and carefully shaped sound. The youthful group was skilled to start with, hand-selected by their founder, with a collective sound polished over months of rehearsals. Alfera is a detailed and expressive conductor, truly fascinating to watch — he’s like a slender jumping bean, but with the ease that comes with being in full control. His level of connection with the performers is extraordinary, including the partnership with fabulous accompanist Tali Tadmor, and it’s obvious they’re all having a good time.
And so did the audience. With one delightful and moving piece after another in what Alfera calls a “choral buffet”, the long program (about an hour and 45 min, no intermission) was well-paced and engaging from start to finish. Natural showmanship and sincere enthusiasm make obsolete the gimmicks other new groups tend to cling to. This ensemble is just really damn good, and they let music and skill and passion speak for them.
A few highlights:
The program started fittingly with “Music Divine”, a 17th-century madrigal by Thomas Tomkins. It was an inspired beginning, all bells and velvet. The next, by Thomas Weelkes, showed off the ensemble’s light, easy precision, the rapid-fire lines almost thrown away in full fluency.
The cycle of E. E. Cummings’ settings by Vincent Persichetti were two-part charmers, each first recited by actor Joe Sofranko (who apparently also sings, but not this time), spoken with character and energy, then sung by the choir in exquisite symbiosis, twenty-one voices as two. We were then treated to varied selections by living composers, including works by Estonian mystic Cyrillus Kreek, Matthew Brown, Eric Whitacre, James MacMillan and Jeffrey Bernstein. Brown’s West Coast premiere, Another Lullaby for Insomniacs, is sweet and sad and beautiful, layered with plenty of long, sustained singing. Bernstein’s new piece, Pablo Neruda in Love, works its way through all the states of love in a very personal journey, starting with lyrical beauty, growing tempestuous, and later shimmering with almost tangible light.
The program finished with a set of rock-the-house gospel arrangements, and an audience that joyfully leaped to their feet in thanks. The newest choral group in town is definitely a hit.