The anniversary special begins, appropriately, with a short video highlighting some of the group’s proudest moments, including performances at the White House and the London Olympics.
VOENA is a diverse group of young singers, spanning ages from pre-kindergarten through high school and a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The group performs compositions from all over the world, many reflecting the group’s cultural heritage. “I set the bar very high,” says founder and director Annabelle Marie. The children perform songs in dozens of languages, including “The VOENA Story,” which is written in English and Mandarin Chinese.
Sunday’s performance included a few numbers sung together with prep and intermediate students, whereas the Santa Rosa show later this month will be strictly “concert choir,” the most advanced singers. But even with all the extra bodies filing on and off the stage Sunday, the production ran very smoothly, with not a moment wasted. Transitions are quick and seamless, thanks to excellent logistical planning (singers lining up in the aisles prior to filing onstage, for example) and assistance from an extensive lineup of diligent volunteers.
Almost every one of the more than 30 songs in the “Voices” program features solo performances, which is good for the students and even better for the audience. Marie evokes magical sounds from the combined choir, and it is exciting to see, one voice at a time, glimpses of how it all originates. The children also perform sound effects and percussion — in fact, percussion has become the specialty of a select group of choir performers.
When Campitelli began performing with VOENA a few years ago, he noticed that a few of the kids were especially adept at rhythm. He began working with them individually, and not long after that group became known as “Voices of Rhythm.” In act two of “Voices of the Journey,” rhythm group members Gabby Campitelli and Isabella Braulik performs an interactive percussion-only duet, named simply “Bodhran Sisters,” after the special type of drums they use. The piece is a delightful departure from the larger choir sound, performed by the young artists with tangible joy.
Act two starts off with another short video, this one featuring clips from the choir’s travels to Japan and South Africa. As the video closes, Campitelli eases in with “Prsten Mi Padna,” a Macedonian folk number incorporating solo percussion and choir parts. The second act continues with a series of pieces from African countries before switching to the dramatically different “America,” a piece arranged for the group’s performance at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show. Next, after the brief “Bodhran Sisters” duet, the mood takes another dramatic turn with the Irish folk piece, “Toss the Feathers.”
Perhaps the longest number in the 20th anniversary concert is a Kyrie eleison by Ron Kean, sung in Latin. It is a sublime sound, equal to its grand introduction by Marie. “Picture yourself in a grand cathedral,” she implores the audience, and imagine the sound filling the cavernous space with gleeful spirit. The piece is uniquely reverent, another dramatic departure from the overall tone of the concert.
“Voices of the Journey” concludes with a bright rendition of “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins, sung with terrific enthusiasm by all.
VOENA is a unique and dynamic ensemble of voices that leaves audiences with an elevated sense of spirit. Benicia is fortunate to have them here. Don’t miss out on this jewel in the crown of Benicia’s rich arts community.
If You Go
“Voices of the Journey” will be performed at the Jackson Theater, 4400 Day School Place, Santa Rosa on May 18. Tickets are $15 to $25 and are available by calling 707-284-3200 or online at voena.org.
Elizabeth Warnimont is a freelance writer specializing in the performing arts. She is also a substitute teacher for the Benicia Unified School District.