Group vox aeterna offers timeless sacred music


Listening to the sounds of vox aeterna, you can feel your neck muscles unknot and hear the sighing of the Spirit as it stirs your soul. That’s exactly the response hoped for by the singers who make up the ensemble.

“We hope to provide a spiritual and artistic experience,” said Scott Atwood, founder and artistic director of the group. “The music we sing has an emotive, ethereal quality and it will stand the test of time.”

The music is not the only thing that has to withstand a test. Singers were recruited by Atwood, hand-picked in fact, when he first began vox aeterna in the fall of 1996. Now any prospective singers are auditioned and all qualifiers are subjected to a comprehensive note screening session prior to each concert: they are tested on every note to be sung.

“This gives us a chance to weed out any bad notes that may have crept in along the way,” Atwood said.

Jim Hennessy of James Island, a member of the ensemble’s Board of Advisors, attested to the high caliber of musicianship present in the group. He is a church choir singer, good enough to be asked to try out for vox aeterna, which translates from the Latin to “the eternal voice.” As soon as he heard the ensemble sing, however, he knew he was out of his league.

“I was a lost ball in tall weeds,” Hennessy said. “Those folks are really talented.”

Hennessy withdrew from performing with vox, but was intrigued by the music the group was making and didn’t want to sever his ties from such beauty. Since he makes his living in the business world, he became a member of the board of vox aeterna, which is now incorporated as a not-for-profit company. No one gets paid in the corporation, and Atwood holds no realistic expectation that anyone ever will. Most are professional musicians or college professors and most have degrees in music. Others include physicians, medical personnel, educators and business people. Almost all are soloists with other choirs. They sing with vox aeterna because they love to do it.

“There lives within each of them a desire to give some beautiful music to whoever wants to hear it. They are people who enjoy singing,” Hennessy said.

Indeed, the music they make is as steeped in the singers’ own enjoyment as it is in a rich tradition of beautiful music. The bulk of the ensemble’s repertoire is 20th century stuff, high quality and not common, often sacred, always hauntingly evocative. Atwood is the visionary of the group and he contends that, while the stylistic range of vox’s repertoire is focused, the scope and sound and color explored by music is widespread.

“Germane to each piece of music we sing is a basic ‘human’ quality,” Atwood said. “We seek to capture the universal; we aim to find that common ground that binds us together as people. The essence of good music is the capacity to transform and inspire people from all generations and from all walks of life. It’s the ability to capture that essence of our human experience that transcends time and culture. It’s that special something about Bach and Brahms with which people continue to resonate decade after decade and century after century.”

The director said that concertgoers say after a performance that they never heard choral music like it before. He said the goal of the group is to provide “spiritual nourishment as well as artistic nourishment.” Atwood said that vox aeterna is hoping to find its niche and does not expect to find a mass audience for its sound.

For the next performance in the ensemble’s first full concert season, vox aeterna chose to sing Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, a chant-based composition that Atwood described as “unassuming, peaceful and intimate. It can transform the soul.” The director said that the piece should provide the ecumenical community “a rare opportunity for Lenten reflection.” The ensemble chose the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 120 Broad Street, in Charleston, for the concert because the church and its idiomatic Bedient organ will provide the ambiance and acoustics of the French gothic style after which they are modeled. Durufle wrote for such a concert.

In the program, titled “Faith and Transformation,” vox aeterna will also sing performances of short works by Atwood, Faure, Giles, Near, Proulx, Rorem, Stearns, Carissimi and Lotti.

For the Sunday afternoon concert at 3 p.m. on March 29, vox aeterna will be accompanied by a Tim Tikker on the Bedient and a 16-piece chamber orchestra comprised of members of the Charleston Symphony.

Admission is free and the concert is open to the public.