Material: Formed in 2007, the San Francisco-based Conspiracy Of Venus became the female counterpart to the all-male Conspiracy of Beards. Consisting of 30 vocalists under the direction of McBride, the choir explores a broad musical terrain ranging from Joni Mitchell to David Bowie and Björk along with McBride originals. The arrangements are complex, turning songs inside out and upside down, with the end result being a re-invented piece of music. For those who enjoy a spin on a beloved song, this is an exciting prospect, but for those who want to preserve the integrity of the original piece, it can be jarring. In any case, the formation of an all-women choir performing pop and jazz is conceptually strong as well as timely.
Musicianship: The group deserves kudos for tackling such challenging vocal parts, though at times the intonation with the individual components didn’t always seem as locked in as it could have been. The group can also improve on blending so that each vocal part sounds more cohesive. McBride is obviously a dedicated teacher and choral director who sets her musical sights high, but tackling these arrangements is no easy feat even for the most proficient of musicians.
Performance: Engaging the audience in every step of the program, McBride explained each song choice and included some backstory. Her enthusiasm for the project and her love of the material is shared by the choir members. Because the arrangements are intricate, some of the selections, like Björk’s “Possibly Maybe,” underscore the fact that less esoteric choices would be more accessible. Listeners respond to music viscerally first and foremost, with the lyrics giving underlying meaning to the song. McBride’s deconstruction of the pieces often obscured that message.
However daring the approach is, the sum of the parts still needs to add up to something you can embrace. Another plus would have been to vary the presentation by breaking down the group in several numbers and featuring soloists or a smaller ensemble of the choir. The strongest performance was Iris Dement’s “Let The Mystery Be,” which really gave the group a chance to shine.
Summary: Conceptually compelling, Conspiracy Of Venus is an altogether worthy endeavor. Choosing material that is more inclusive and/or retaining more of each song’s underlying melody would appeal to a larger audience. Featuring various members of the choir would also enhance the experience while improving the visual presentation.
The Players: Joyce Todd McBride, choral director, arranger; Peter Apfelbaum, sax. (See website for complete list of singers).
Photo by Mark Shiwolich
Conspiracy of Venus - "Life on Mars" cover of David Bowie
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