Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Donald M. Skirvin, Eric Banks, Karen Thomas, Keith Horlock, Matt Reed, Meredith Monk, Paul Crabtree, Robert Wade, Steven Sametz, The Esoterics
On Sunday, at two in the afternoon, I heard an absolutely spectacular choral concert at the Our Saviors Lutheran Church on E. 9th Ave. in Denver. The choir performing this marvelous concert was The Esoterics from Seattle, Washington, and conducted by Dr. Eric Banks. Our Saviors Lutheran Church is the smallest church I have seen for many years, but the acoustics were excellent, and the audience was far too small considering the excellence of the performance. The 27 member choir performs a cappella which can spell disaster for some choirs, because there is no accompaniment to help hide small errors. However, I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing this choir and its conductor cannot do, and do exceptionally well.
Before I go any further, I will quote from the bio statement for Dr. Banks which appeared in the program notes.
“As a conductor, composer, instructor, vocalist, linguist, and ethnomusicologist, Eric Banks has garnered significant acclaim as one of the most creative and compelling choral directors in the United States – for his unwavering commitment to new music for unaccompanied voices. In 1992, Eric founded The Esoterics, a professional-caliber chamber chorus in Seattle whose mission is to perform and perpetuate contemporary choral music beyond the scope of the established a cappella canon. In 2004, Banks founded yet another group, the all-male vocal ensemble Ӕdonis, whose mission is to perform choral music exclusively by gay and lesbian composers. After completing his BA in Composition at Yale University in 1990, Eric relocated to Seattle to study in the departments of Choral Studies and Music Theory at the University of Washington. His MM thesis (1992) is a performance edition of Dixit Dominus by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani; his MA thesis (199S) is a postmodern analysis of Arvo Pärt’s symphonic Credo; and his DMA dissertation (1996) surveys the choral music of Mexican composer and Aztec ethnomusicologist Carlos Chavez. In 1997, at the conclusion of his graduate study, Banks traveled to Sweden as a Fulbright Scholar and Lois Roth Fellow in order to learn more about its contemporary choral culture. While in Stockholm, Eric sang as a chorister and soloist with several ensembles, including the Swedish Radio Choir and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. In his music, Eric is drawn to ideas that are ‘esoteric’ in origin, and chooses to express concepts that are undiscovered, under-represented, or not: easily decipherable to a wider audience. As a composer, Banks has been able to combine his love of poetry, foreign language, classical civilization, comparative religion, and astronomy, to create a growing repertoire for a cappella chorus. Banks’ commissioned works have been recorded by The Esoterics and can be found on CDs released on the Terpsichore label. Eric taught music theory, music history, composition, and voice at Cornish College of the Arts from 2004 to 2012. He has been a visiting scholar at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Swedish National Radio in Stockholm, as well as at the Cama Oriental Institute in Bombay, India. Winner of the 2010 Dale Warland Commission Award from Chorus America and the American Composers Forum, Eric has received composition and research grants from 4Culture, Seattle CityArtists, Artist Trust, the Washington State Arts Commission, and most recently from the National Endowment for the Arts. Eric lives in Seattle with David Gellman, his partner of fifteen years (who is also The Esoterics’ graphic design guru). Eric is a member of ASCAP.”
The theme of The Esoterics program was Agapé: The Many Shapes of Love. They opened with a work by Meredith Monk entitled Earth seen from above. Meredith Jane Monk (born in 1942) is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer. Since the 1960s, Monk has created multi-disciplinary works which combine music, theatre, and dance, which makes one think a little bit of the late and great John Cage. Earth seen from above is a vocalise, which is a vocal exercise or étude, sung to the vowels or solemnization syllables. This was a beautiful work that clearly demonstrated the dynamic control that this choir has and that Maestro Banks demands. The rhythmic drive of this piece – if one can call it drive, because the piece is so serene – comes from divided parts of the choir. One section of the choir starts a syllable and another section of the choir follows with the following syllable and a little bit of rhythmic emphasis. The lower sections of the choir has an ostinato pattern while the rest of the choir continues with a melodic line. Granted, that is a rather crude description, but keep in mind this was my first hearing of the piece. It is an absolutely wonderful piece to open a concert with, because right away it makes the audience listen intently.
The second work on the program was by Karen Thomas, written for a memorial service for a close friend of hers. It was entitled Beauty is before me, and is a setting of a Navajo prayer text. It became readily apparent that this choir, which normally sings at sea level, was not going to be at all disturbed by singing at 5280 feet of altitude. They were always on pitch, and seemed to have absolutely no breath problems whatsoever. It was also noticeable that Doctor Banks was able to communicate the remarkable emotion of these pieces to his choir. As a matter of fact, after the performance I spoke with him briefly, and he said that the rehearsals are quite rigorous (I must say, that was apparent from hearing the performance) and that they rehearsed twice a week, and each rehearsal was three hours long. That is quite a workout, especially for a choir. But that kind of dedication on the part of the choir members is very obvious. This choir has a reputation of being one of the outstanding choirs on the West Coast, and that kind of devotion to their art makes a great deal of difference.
I was quite anxious to hear the third work on the program, because it was composed by Maestro Eric Banks. Please read, again, the first sentence of the bio statement which begins the third paragraph of this article. How is it that Dr. Eric Banks can be so accomplished in six disciplines at the tender age of forty-three years? I bring this up because the third work on this program is in Swedish and was translated and composed by Banks. This work, entitled Two Portraits, began in what I would typify as a 20th-century choral style that became popular in the 1960s. It featured ninth and thirteenth chords, and additional added note chords, so that at the outset, I thought this was going to be a rather typical post-World War II style piece. But I was very wrong. What sets it apart are the many deceptive resolutions of harmony. In other words, one’s ear hears enough so that it can determine where one chord is going to lead. If there are deceptive resolutions, then the harmonies lead to unexpected, often startling, places. This was an absolutely beautiful piece, and I wish that I could hear it again.
It is always interesting to attend the concert where every work on the program is unfamiliar. Sometimes, the first hearings are difficult to judge, but when the choir is so good, and the conductor is such a gifted musician, that almost always means that the pieces performed at the concert will be excellent works of art. Certainly, one of the high points of this concert, for me, at least, was a composition written in 2007 by Donald Skirvin entitled Awakening. The text is based on poetry by Gordon Abshire. Here is a brief biographical quote from Donald Skirvin’s website:
“Donald Skirvin studied music at the Jordan Conservatory of Music, Indianapolis, and at Indiana University, Bloomington. As composer-in-residence with The Esoterics, he has written over 30 new works for the group, many of which are available on CD. He has received three NEA grants for commissions through The Esoterics. His composition, We Sing the Dream, was selected as the Festival Anthem prizewinner for the GALA V music festival in 1996 and was performed by 1,500 singers at the conclusion of the festival.”
Awakening is a startlingly beautiful piece that is incredibly complex harmonically. It is in three movements, and has a tenor solo in the second movement, which was sung by Maestro Banks as he conducted. Again, Banks’ many skills were displayed. He didn’t just sing. He is outstanding. But, I hasten to add that he was surely motivated by this beautiful piece of music written by Donald Skirvin. I will do something that I have not done before in a review article, and that is post a link which will take you to a YouTube recording of this marvelous piece. Here is the link:
After the intermission, this superb concert continued, and all of it displayed the same careful preparation and musicianship that was demonstrated on the first half of the program. There was a work translated by Eric Banks, and another work composed by Eric Banks. The Esoterics performed a composition by American composer Paul Crabtree entitled Five romantic miniatures from ‘The Simpsons’ (a five part work) which was a combination of hilariously funny lyrics and very sophisticated music. In fact, if one did not know what was being sung (the text of the third piece is “Marge, you make the best pork chops.”), it would be very easy to assume that the text was as serious as the music. It was absolutely terrific.
The Esoterics have many CDs available, and it is my hope that you readers will purchase them, because, 1) the music is outstanding, and 2) the audience should have been much larger than it was. The setting for this concert was really very intimate, but still, the space was not filled. The acoustics were so excellent, and the choir was so good, as were the soloists, Matt Reed, Eric Banks, Keith Horlock, and Robert Wade, that every single syllable could be heard very clearly. The next time, and I sincerely hope there will be a next time, The Esoterics come to Denver, I hope the performance space will be full. It is also my hope that this marvelous choral group was not left with the impression that we here in Denver have no musical curiosity.
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