KC VITAs presents a transcendent “The Fifth Century”

Members of KC VITAs dressed in black clothing stand in front of a teal mural with a pink flower and purple butterfly.

KC VITAs performs music of the 21st century and has premiered over 80 work since its founding. (photo by Mary Vanhooser)

KC VITAs started out its 9th season with a strong performance of a demanding and delicate work in Gavin Bryars’ “The Fifth Century.” 

The hour-long presentation in Country Club United Methodist Church’s historic building on Sunday was the second of two performances for the group’s summer series, which included insightful opening remarks from Dr. Dorothy Maglione, a professor at William Jewell College. She gave the audience an overview of the life and works of the English composer Gavin Bryars. Bryars, now in his 80s, has been a part of the improvised and experimental music scene since the 1960s. Both prolific and eclectic, he has created a broad selection of works that reach across genres.  

KC VITAs specializes in modern works, and has premiered over 80 works since 2015. This particular work was commissioned and premiered in 2014 by The Crossing, one of the leading choral ensembles in the United States, and PRISM Quartet, an acclaimed saxophone quartet. Their recording won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance in 2018. 

Bryars’ piece ran about 45 minutes long and the 24-voice ensemble, conducted by KC VITAs founder Jackson Thomas, navigated the expansive work with a thoughtful understanding. The choir was joined by the Kansas City Sax Quartet. This quartet is a newly formed group, with Chad Lilley on soprano saxophone, Walt Puyear on alto saxophone, Matthew Koester on tenor saxophone and Kyle Blake Jones on baritone saxophone (who are also all students of PRISM Quartet members). 

Jackson Thomas founded KC VITAs in 2015. (photo by Mary Vanhooser)

Bryars used text by Thomas Traherne, a 17th century poet and theologian, from his opus “Centuries of Meditations,” expressing ecstatic spirituality, transcendence and praise. Traherne died in 1674, largely unknown until “Centuries” was published in 1908. 

The composer melded the saxophone timbres and vocal lines with tender accuracy. Though text heavy, the work was overall serene, as prayerful as a wide open meadow, with images of heaven, references to infinity and eternity permeating the lyrics. 

It opened with a hymn-like setting from the quartet, the voices entering in gentle waves that gradually soared before folding back into the texture. Bryars paid especial attention to words like “dark” and “lustre,” crafting the tones to bring out the meaning of the text. 

In the second movement “As sure as there is space infinite,” the saxophones had an extended section, with a cyclical four note figure and passed solo line rising, ever rising. The voices, in turn, had the effect of lifting up, creating a moment of brightness and forward motion. 

Sometimes the saxophones would set the atmosphere, with pulsing motion or long drawn out lines that blended with the voices. At others, it would be voices alone. Only a time or two was there an issue with tuning at the challenging pianissimo wisps at the ends of movements, impressive given the somewhat willful wandering of the chords. 

The changes from movement to movement were subtle and nearly seamless, generally keeping in the same tone world throughout. This created an overall tranquility, bringing to mind a soft gray sky pierced through at times by sunbeams, like in the extended crescendo and decrescendo of movement five, “Eternity magnifies our joys exceedingly,” or movement seven, “Our bridegroom and our king being everywhere,” when individual saxophone voices would gently assert themselves in little breaks between long vocal phrases.  

Because they were recording the performance, the AC at the venue was shut off for the performance. It was fortunate that the day was relatively mild for August, the program brief and well performed, as the increasing warmth and wash of sound made for a solemn, almost somnolent, atmosphere.

Reviewed Sunday August 6, 2023 at Country Club United Methodist Church. For more information visit kcvitas.org

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply