I went to see them with my chorister friend, Sal. We both agreed that Oxford does not need another traditional choir doing traditional choir stuff – Carmina Burana anyone? Er...no, thanks. Voxabilis formed six weeks ago and aims to bridge the gap between classical and popular music to attract a younger audience. Hopeful? Well, perhaps.
They opened with Five English Folksongs by Vaughan Williams. Every folk song tells a story and I was glad I was able to follow it in the programme. I couldn't fault their voices and the acoustics in the chapel are perfect, but they do need to do a little work on their diction – without the words in front of me I would have been lost. My other small gripe (let's get them out of the way now, then it's onwards and upwards) is that one of the sopranos belted it out far more forcefully than her colleagues; it did upset the balance a little.
Michael Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals followed. The jury is still out on the question of whether white people can really sing black music; some time ago I asked Joss, my Trinidadian plumber, for the definitive answer. He said white bro’ James Morrison has a really cool “black” voice.
So maybe they don’t have to be black to sing Negro spirituals, but I still don't think they were right for Voxabilis. Take for instance, 'Go Down, Moses'. Originally, it was made famous by Paul Robeson, a basso cantante singer back when God was lad. It demands a depth, a gravitas that try as they might, a young choir will never have. They’ll be old soon enough – they should celebrate being young.
Then came the interval in the antechapel; there is always a price to pay for the pleasure of sitting in old churches – it is usually hypothermia and Merton Chapel was no exception. I had a red wine Slush Puppie to warm me up. It occurred to me that a couple of buckets of mulled wine – one regular, one non-alcoholic, would have been an elegant solution to the problem.
Three Yorkshire folksongs came next. Having misspent quite a lot of my youth in Whitby, (a North Yorkshire coastal town famous for its abbey, Captain James Cook, Dracula, kippers and the Whitby Folk Week), I have heard most Yorkshire folksongs before and was looking forward to hearing them with a Voxabilis spin. They performed an arrangement by Robert Webb, a member of the choir and a Yorkshireman himself. He did a grand job, I really enjoyed it.
Five American Folksongs rounded off the programme, including 'Yankee Doodle', 'Frog went a-courtin' and my own favourite, 'Shortnin' bread – Pick a bale o' cotton'. All jaunty, bouncy tunes, perfect for young, vibrant voices.
For an encore, a sneak preview of 'Double, Double, Toil and Trouble', one of Four Shakespeare Songs by Mantyjarvi that will be included in their next concert, planned for February 2009. Sal said they had saved the best for last; she thought the Shakespeare number was brilliant, upbeat, modern and may well have proved taxing for a more traditional choir.
Voxabilis deserve to do well. I hope that when they next perform, the audience will be as young as the choir.