Ann Arbor’s Vocal Arts Ensemble has been performing traditional, contemporary, and newly commissioned works since 1992. The ensemble of highly skilled professional and amateur singers was originally an a cappella group, but has since grown to include dynamic collaborations with instrumentalists, dancers, poets, and actors to create far-reaching musical experiences for diverse audiences.
The pandemic has challenged artistic director Benjamin Cohen and his twenty-four singers to design virtual performances that continue to engage and surprise audiences. Fortunately, versatility is a core quality of the ensemble, and Sunday’s Spring Concert, “Taking it to the House,” will be no exception: it features contemporary songs that reflect the confinement that has been a stark reality for many.
The theme is “about being in the house and wanting to get out,” says Cohen. “Songs about rooms and furniture, like ‘My Own Little Corner’ from Cinderella, ‘The Room is Filled with You’ from Collette, and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ by Lionel Richie.
Constructing a virtual concert that is beautiful to hear is as much a technical as a performative feat. “Singers sing into their phones at home and submit it to me and my engineer David Schall so it’s a kind of solitary process,” Cohen says. “Then it’s crystallized into a virtual presentation and it looks kaleidoscopic on the screen.”
The final product is a beautifully arranged piece of music that is exciting to hear and interesting to see. But Cohen and his singers long for the day when they can be in the same room together. “That has been missing from my life in the normal way and it’s been absent for my singers too, who really lean on that group for an immersive experience in music and music making,” he says. “The challenge is missing the spontaneity and endorphins that come with making great music and responding to the moment because there is no moment.”
There may be no “moment” this year, but the show will go on, free of charge, Sunday, May 9, at 7 p.m. on the Vocal Arts Ensemble’s Youtube channel. And unlike live concerts, this one will enjoy an afterlife.