Whether Jukebox is attracting new audiences for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is yet to be decided. But that it introduces fine performances of new and unexpected music in a delicious package was a sure thing Friday at Merchants Hall in Rutland. A capacity crowd — including a bunch of teens — seemed enthralled with the spicy potpourri performed by the Arka Quartet and guest soloist, soprano Mary Bonhag.
The 90-minute program opened traditionally enough with some exquisite Mozart. Bonhag performed the Laudamus te (We praise you) from the great C minor Mass, using her crystalline voice with a nuanced expressiveness that was infectious and irresistibly beautiful. With the four strings joyfully delivering the orchestra’s part, it was glorious.
But, from then on, it was off to the unknown — six short works likely unheard before by members of the audience (though a few seemed oddly familiar).
One of those was Jessie Montgomery’s setting of “I Want to Go Home,” which accentuated the spiritual with a rich string accompaniment. While Bonhag’s soprano is never going to sound what we think of as African-American, she went straight to the heart of the music.
Also familiar were two folk songs from The Weavers in an imaginative arrangement by Bonhag’s husband, composer Evan Premo, “Two Brothers” and “Kisses.” This was delightful folk singing with some added spice.
Jukebox, now in its fourth season, has a home base at the Burlington nightclub ArtsRiot, but has taken its programs to Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm as well as Merchants Hall. They are all emceed with an easygoing warmth and wit by Burlington composer Matt LaRocca who, as curator, creates the programs.
From the first, the basic artistic personnel has remained the same, but as a byproduct, violinists Letitia Quante and Brooke Quiggins, violist Stefanie Taylor and cellist John Dunlop, all longtime VSO members, have formally become the Arka Quartet. In this program, the four certainly performed cohesively and made a musical statement. It will be interesting to hear the ensemble perform formal string quartets, which may happen in April.
Perhaps the most intriguing — and fun — piece on the program was “Sequenza III” for solo voice by 20th century Italian composer Luciano Berio. In this perhaps 10-minute work, Bonhag created a broad palette of sounds and words with her voice in varying rhythmic patterns resulting in an irresistible abstract story of its own — sort of super-sophisticated rap.
Much more serious was Jim Territo’s exquisitely warm and tender string accompaniment for “Love, Children,” and Beauty” from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” narrated by Bonhag. The quartet alone delivered “Daughters of Sol,” written by Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi for the Kronos Quartet, perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful music on the program, with its Middle Eastern modal colors.The backdrop was a touching film clip.
The concert came home to close the program with an appropriate Martin Luther King Jr. tribute. Brookfield composer Kathy Wonson Eddy’s reverent and colorful “Let Justice Roll Down” with Bonhag and a string trio did just that.
Lightening it up just a bit, Bonhag and the quartet delivered Kate Bush’s silly “Pi” as an encore.
Jukebox is ostensibly an introduction to the VSO’s major programs, but Friday’s performance was a light delight simply by itself. Clearly the enthusiastic audience concurred.