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A Singing Delight: Daniel Shores and the Skylark Vocal Ensemble

A retrospective looks at 2018’s Seven Words from the Cross, nominated for the 2019 Grammy Awards.
By Ben Jacklin

Skylark Vocal Ensemble are starting to get some serious recognition. Historically, a lot of American choral bands and performers tend to get overlooked on the global playing field. In a list of the best choral ensembles published by Gramophone a few years ago, the top 20 were all named as being from the UK and Europe. Not one American group made the cut. It’s a competitive landscape, but critics and reviewers point to Skylark as becoming a “serious contender.”

Skylark’s release last year, Seven Words from the Cross, found itself up for two Grammy Awards. It was nominated in the Best Choral Performance and Best Immersive Audio Album categories, with the latter being a direct nod for Daniel Shores.

skylark album cover

The BBC have described the Skylark Vocal Ensemble as “the cream of the American crop.” According to their website, Skylark “strives to set the standard for innovative and engaging programs that re-define the choral experience for audiences and singers alike.” Their focus on technology means that they have embraced the immersive audio technology that can create a stunning soundstage for vocal ensembles. Daniel Shores is the esteemed producer who was tasked with turning the stunning performance of the Skylark Ensemble into an engrossing SACD experience. This was achieved with distinction, and earned him a Grammy nomination in the 2019 category for Best Immersive Audio Album.

The ensemble is made up of vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and even educators (more on this later). The lineup changes from tour to tour and album to album. The release of Seven Words from the Cross is an opportunity for certain soloists to have their own moment in the spotlight, with some of the songs being solo performances with incredible backing vocals. Others are full choral arrangements, with a bigger sound and more intricate vocal melodies weaving together to create an amazing soundscape.

The mixing on the album is second to none. Though some of the vocal solo performances don’t give the full chance to show off the immersive audio capabilities, the choral performances shine. Bringing all angles of an ensemble together, they conjure images of ancient cathedrals and churches through their acoustic qualities. Shores tames the vocal harmonies and gives each member of this incredible ensemble their space to shine. The sound can shift from a delicate vulnerability with a solo vocalist to a huge sound, best demonstrated in “Death May Dissolve (Fantasia on a Hymn by William Billings).”

The album features a combination of hymns, and they have been uniquely and fascinatingly selected and interpreted. There are mainstream classics such as “Amazing Grace” and longer, more historical-feeling performances of hymns such as “4 Motets pour un temps de pénitence, FP 97: No. 2, Vinea mea electa.” The Skylark Vocal Ensemble brings some lesser known hymns to a more mainstream audience.

The christian spirit doesn’t just shine through the music. Skylark is a not-for-profit organization, and so much more than just a vocal ensemble. They work in education, providing programs within colleges and high schools as well as other outreach workshops. Skylark has residencies at incredible educational organizations such as Harvard and MIT. Seven Words from the Cross and its Grammy nomination brought due recognition to a hardworking organization with a talented ensemble.

About the Author

Ben is a writer and musician from the UK with a background in music technology. He writes about engineering and production, musicianship and music equipment for a number of publications including his own site, subreel.com