Opus Colorado

The Ars Nova Singers always create new expectations!

Friday evening, December 7, the Ars Nova Singers gave one of the best performances that I have ever heard from them at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Denver. The name of their program was A Midwinter Collage: Christmas with Ars Nova Singers, and they sang a great deal of music that encompassed almost every style you can think of from Gregorian chant, Appalachian shape-note, and avant-garde.

The guest artist of the evening was the outstanding Lucille Reilly, whose instrument is the hammered dulcimer. I will quote from the program notes:

“Lucille Reilly lives in metro Denver (www.thedulcimerlady.com). She is a graduate of Westminster Choir College and a Melodious Accord Composers Fellow, plus an award-winning performer on both hammered dulcimer and diatonic autoharp (1997 National Hammered Dulcimer Champion, 1995/2010 Mountain Laurel Autoharp Champion and 1995/2003/2010 International Autoharp Champion). In addition to performing locally, her distinguished list of performance venues include The Academy of Music, Philadelphia; Arizona Folklore Preserve; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Colorado; the Philadelphia Folk Festival; Sore Fingers Summer School, Kingham, England; New Jersey State Council on the Arts; Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park; and numerous chamber-music series around the United States. This is her first time performing with the Ars Nova Singers.

“As an instructor, Lucille dedicates her teaching to helping musicians of all instruments craft wonderful sound with grace, freedom and resonance. The author of two best-selling instruction books for hammered dulcimer and a monograph series for diatonic autoharp, Lucille has composed several choral works, one of them performed on tonight’s program, and has two CDs to her credit (Thus Sings My Soul and Contra-Intuitive) with another on the way in 2013 (All in a Garden Green, English and Scottish dance music performed solo on six diatonic autoharps).”

The Ars Nova Singers began their program with a processional into the sanctuary of St. Paul’s, while singing Ave Maria: O auctrix vitae (Hail Mary, O source of life) which was written by Hildegard of Bingen. This was also performed by a wonderful soprano, Margaret Ozaki, Ann Marie Morgan playing a treble gamba, and Lucille Reilly performing on the dulcimer.

In the last 20 years, Hildegard of Bingen has emerged from obscurity as abbess, poet, composer, and mystic because of the recordings of her music by the Anonymous 4. We believe her dates to be 1098 to 1179 but those dates may not be exact. Her parents gave her to the Church because she professed to have visions, which caused her to become known as a mystic. However, she could compose music and poetry, because she was one of the few women of her time who were taught how to read and write. You must understand that in the medieval period, women were considered useful only to raise a family and bear children. Women of the upper-class were sometimes taught to read: those who were not taught to read were considered to be stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education. Because they were not given an education, they were considered stupid. It was a remarkable catch 22. But Hildegard of Bingen rose above all, and wrote some truly beautiful music.

Margaret Ozaki has an absolutely huge voice that is crystal clear, and very well produced, allowing her the adequate support for an excellent diction. This was a perfect work to open the program with, and I must say that I did not know Ann Marie Morgan could play the gamba. She does it well.

Maestro Thomas Edward Morgan divided this program into six sections, each one different, and each one giving us a different perspective on the holiday season: thus, the title of Collage. I have heard the Ars Nova Singers many times, and I have come to expect excellent performances. As I said above, this evening’s performance was truly exceptional. The first work that caught my attention was the canon, Nesciens mater (Without knowing man, the Virgin mother gave birth) composed by Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522), a French composer who began teaching at the collegiate church in Saint Omer. A canon is a type of strict counterpoint in music where there are two or more identical melodic lines, each starting at a specific distance from each other. The entrances of each subject were incredibly precise and the exuberance of this work was never in doubt. There was never any hint of working hard on the part of the performers: the joy of what they were doing, and their enthusiasm for it, was quite obvious, and lent an almost personal touch to the performance.

But for me, the most perfect performances came from the carols sung in Group III of the concert. There were four carols in this group: Away in a Manger, arranged by J.E. Spilman; While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, by Supply Belcher; A Christmas Carol, by Charles Ives; and, Christ the Appletree, by Stanford Scriven. These four carols were sung with such amazing sensitivity that it brought tears to the eyes. The dynamics and the phrasing could not have been better, and I don’t think I have ever heard a choir sing such accurate entrances in such a totally natural way. One expects a choir like this to be on pitch, and they always were, but they have a way of following Maestro Morgan so that each phrase and tone within the phrase has its own character. The Charles Ives work, A Christmas Carol, S. 228, is a very early work written in 1894 (the S. is for Sinclair, who catalogued all of Ives’ creative output). This was written before Ives began to experiment with new trends in music, and yet the clarity with which this was presented, particularly the very subtle emphasis on harmonic changes, allowed the listener to guess what Ives might do in the future. Stanford Scriven (born in 1988[!]) wrote Christ the Appletree in 2009. It has the kind of rich, full harmony that the Ars Nova Singers seems to delight in. This work, too, was wonderfully sensitive and clean. The Ars Nova Singers are so amazingly skilled in creating warmth of tone, that I wondered how the human voice could create the sounds that they achieved Friday evening. I spent two of my undergraduate years accompanying in Margaret Harshaw’s studio. She was a marvelous voice teacher, but I don’t remember hearing vocal production like I heard from everyone in the choir at this concert. The detail work from the Ars Nova Singers was spellbinding without being pedantic: their phrasing could not have been improved upon, and their rhythmic emphasis and accents were absolutely together without being doctrinaire. It was beautiful.

Group IV of the concert was comprised of three Appalachian Carols: Star in the East, Rise up Shepherd, and Judah’s Land. These were written and sung in shape-note notation. To explain what that is, I will quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Shape-note hymnal, also called patent-note hymnal, or buckwheat-note hymnal, American hymnal incorporating many folk hymns and utilizing a special musical notation. The seven-note scale was sung not to the syllables do–re–mi–fa–sol–la–ti but to a four-syllable system carried with them by early English colonists: fa–sol–la–fa–sol–la–mi. The notation of the music was normal except that the note heads of the shape-note system replaced the regular ones. The singer reads the music by following the shapes of the note heads, although someone unfamiliar with the system could read the notes according to their placement on the staff.

“The hymns normally appear in three-part or, less often, four-part harmonizations. Traditional rules of European harmony are consistently disregarded, giving rise to a spare, vigorous style in which the movement of the individual melodic lines is of primary importance. The melody is normally in the tenor part. Melodies are drawn from folk hymns, religious ballads, revival spirituals (see spiritual), hymns of 18th- and early 19th-century Americans, and, to a lesser extent, popular hymns and anthems of European composers.

“The shape-note tradition waned in New England around 1815, pressured by urban trends toward Europeanized music, but it thrived in the Midwest and South. Important hymnals from this period were John Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813) and Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony (1816).

“Only in the 1880s did the shape-note system decline. Still in use among shape-note singers, who often meet in annual singing conventions, are William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835; 7th ed. 1854) and Benjamin Franklin White and E.J. King’s Sacred Harp (1844; rev. ed., The Sacred Harp, 1991), both of which use four shapes. Walker’s Christian Harmony (1866) used his own seven-shape system.”

I am aware that that is a lengthy explanation, but I feel it is necessary, because it also implies – and this is important – a style of singing. I grew up in southern Indiana, and late at night, this kind of singing could be heard on radio broadcasts coming from Kentucky and Tennessee. The style was easily recognized by its nasal quality and its slightly-off-key approach to pitch. The announcer always made it clear that what was being sung was a shape-note composition of some kind. The soloists from the Ars Nova Singers who performed these shape-note works were Tara U’Ren, Amy Palmer and Jonathan Raabe. These three individuals must have practiced diligently for weeks prior to this concert, because it appears to me that singing slightly off pitch, after so carefully making sure that one sings on pitch, would be incredibly difficult. In addition, they completed the style by adding a nasal quality to their voices.

This had to be incredibly difficult, and I am sure that those in the audience who noticed it, probably thought that Ms. U’Ren, Ms. Palmer, and Mr. Raabe were getting tired (!), but I assure you that was not the case. To me, that is a demonstration of the skill that these three singers possess: it would be easier to sing a great deal off key, but they were singing just a couple of micro tones off key.

Throughout the concert, Lucille Reilly was spectacular on the dulcimer. In a 15th Century French Carol, Noel nouvelet, she was spectacular. And in the other works which she accompanied, and in her encore, which was a hornpipe, I was startled at her ability. She is a virtuoso who can change the tone of the instrument: sometimes it was harp-like, and other times it was almost percussive. Her dynamic range was extreme, very musical, always matching the expression of the choir. It has been a while since I have heard a hammered dulcimer, especially performed at the level that Ms. Reilly can perform, and it is clear that she has a vastly superior instrument.

Group VI on the program contained a Swedish Carol which was arranged by Ms. Reilly entitled, Prepare the way, O Zion. I was not surprised at the excellent quality of the arrangement, because her musicianship was readily apparent as she performed on the dulcimer.

I might add that this last group of carols also had Gesù bambino and Once in Royal David’s City, both arranged by Thomas Morgan. The arrangements were excellent.

If there is anything that I shall remember from this performance, it is the incredible accuracy and detail work demonstrated by the Ars Nova Singers and Lucille Reilly. In addition, I shall remember the perfect style demonstrated by U’Ren, Raabe, and Palmer in their shape-note carols. Every time the Ars Nova Singers presents a concert they create new musical expectations. It truly seems as if there is no limit.

The Ars Nova Singers this weekend and next weekend
December 4, 2012, 7:43 pm
Filed under: News | Tags: , ,

The Ars Nova Singers is another chamber ensemble that has made everyone take notice. Thomas Edward Morgan, the artistic director and conductor of the Ars Nova Singers, has a remarkable knack for auditioning and choosing the members of this choir. It is one of the most outstanding chamber choirs in the United States.

“The Artistic Director and Conductor of the Ars Nova Singers has been acknowledged as a leading interpreter of new music in Colorado. Under his leadership, the choir has become one of the premiere ensembles in the region.

“Mr. Morgan received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Master of Music degree in Composition from the University of Colorado. In addition to his work with Ars Nova Singers, he currently serves as Music Director of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, a position he has held for twenty years. Mr. Morgan studied choral and orchestral conducting with Dale Warland, Helmut Rilling, Giora Bernstein, and has taken master classes with Eric Ericson and Herbert Blomstedt. In addition to his work with Ars Nova, Morgan has assembled and prepared choruses for the Boulder Bach Festival, the Colorado Music Festival, the Colorado MahlerFest, and the Boulder Philharmonic. Recent collaborative efforts include the Colorado premiere of Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass with Jake Schepps and Expedition (September, 2010); a production of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the Boulder Philharmonic (February, 2008); a critically acclaimed performance of Terry Riley’s Sun Rings with the renowned Kronos Quartet (July, 2006); and an unusual production of Carmina Burana with the Colorado aerial dance company Frequent Flyers. He recently prepared Ars Nova Singers for the Colorado premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s cantata Oceana, presented in collaboration with the professional chamber orchestra Pro Musica Colorado.”

A Colorado holiday tradition! Celebrate the season with a colorful array of mysterious medieval harmonies, joyous polyphony from the Renaissance, and modern carols, presented with unique Ars Nova flair. Our featured guest instrumentalist is Lucille Reilly on the hammered dulcimer. She is an award- winning performer on the hammered dulcimer and has performed at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Buell Theater and St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, Westminster Choir College, and others, as well as on numerous concert series.

Midwinter Collage: Christmas with Ars Nova

Friday, Dec. 7, 7:30 PM - St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant Street, Denver
Saturday, Dec. 8, 7:30 PM - St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine Street, Boulder
Friday, Dec. 14, 7:30 PM – St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine Street, Boulder
Saturday, Dec. 15 - Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 E. Hampden Blvd., Denver (2:00 p.m. matinee)

Website: http://arsnovasingers.com/

The Ars Nova Singers present a World Premiere: Both are World Class

Though I became a pianist, the first live concert that I can remember attending was one given by the soprano, Lily Pons, when she sang with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1944. As a matter of fact, that was the first year that I began taking piano lessons. The reason I mention this is to underscore the fact that I have been attending concerts for a long time. I have also given many concerts. Attending and performing concerts sharpens the ears. There have been several concerts that I remember vividly because the performers were such gifted artists who gave themselves to their art so selflessly: Sviatoslav Richter, Gyorgy Sebok and Janos Starker, The Beaux Arts Trio, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, just to name a few. There are more, but I will not take space to name them.

I am absolutely convinced that there is one group here in Colorado that is solidly in the company with those individuals that I mentioned above. That group is Thomas Edward Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers. I know there are many who read this who will say, “Yes, they are good, but they’re not that good.” I have heard many choral groups in my time, and at my undergraduate school, pianists were always used to fill out concert choirs and opera choruses. As a chorus member, I have been conducted by Fiora Contino, Robert Stoll, George Krueger, and Hugh Johnson. These individuals were phenomenal choral conductors, but I can assure you I have never heard or seen one like Maestro Morgan. Granted, conducting a relatively small ensemble like the Ars Nova Singers is different than conducting a large chorus. However, I have never seen anyone concentrate on the minutest of details in the same manner that Morgan does. Every phrase is shaped very gracefully with dynamics; and every phrase leads into the next without being gushy and unnecessarily sentimental. He teaches the members of the Ars Nova Singers how to emphasize every syllable of text, and sometimes every half syllable, so that the diction is perfect and the required musical accents are present. The dynamic range of the Ars Nova Singers is simply unbelievable, as is the balance between sections. To achieve this balance, he moves the singers standing positions from composition to composition. It also seems to me that he has the ability of showing the singers that they can meet his demands with utmost ease, even though these are all superb singers who already know how to sing. Morgan is absolutely tireless in his pursuit of detail work, so much so, that I am left with the impression that he has created a completely new instrument, all the while, using something so ancient as the human voice. He also has a knack for choosing singers who wish to make music as eagerly as he does.

Friday, June 1, I attended one of their last two season performances (the first here in Denver, and the second in Boulder) at the Saint John’s Cathedral on Washington Street. They opened the program with Henry Balfour-Gardiner’s Evening Hymn. The harmonies in this work are remarkably lush, and each section of the choir is sometimes divided so that there are more than just four parts. Gardiner, who was the great uncle of conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, was very self-critical about his compositions, and many have been destroyed, though scholars are unsure whether he destroyed his manuscripts himself, or if they were destroyed in World War II. It is been several years since I have heard this particular work, but it was done beautifully, and one could sense that the Ars Nova Singers really liked this particular composition a great deal. However, they seem to like everything they do, because they do everything so well.

This was followed by two works by Arvo Pärt, Cantate Domino and De Profundis. I have written about Arvo Pärt in other articles, so I will quote from one of mine:

“… please be reminded that Arvo Pärt is widely known as a minimalist composer, and his work between the years 1977 to 1992 can be described as “holy minimalism” because of his immersion in Gregorian chant and early liturgical music. He further describes this sound as “tintinnabuli” because it often sounds like the ringing of bells. Some critics have gone so far as to describe Pärt as a Western Confucius because of his mysticism and liturgical leanings. Pärt found much inspiration in the Russian Orthodox Church, and was specifically influenced by his acquaintance with Archimandrite Sophrony, who was a disciple and biographer of St. Silouan. As a matter of fact, it was Father Sophrony who advised Pärt to stay the course and become a composer.”

In the two works presented Friday evening, it was very easy to hear the influence of Gregorian chant. There were open fifths and fourths, and even some of the cadences were structured by a half-step down a third and then a leap down to an open fourth or fifth. The De Profundis was accompanied by percussionist Eric Harbison who played chimes and the bass drum. The piece opens in the lowest possible range for the basses, and clearly was influenced by Gregorian chant. It is accompanied by organ and a softly struck bass drum. Harbison used a soft mallet on the bass drum, not only to keep the dynamics in check, but to create the rhythm of a slow and the mysterious procession.

This performance was divided into five segments, all of which were contrasting. Following the Pärt, in second segment, Brian du Fresne, the multitalented bass section leader, performed Maurice Duruflé’s Fugue sur le theme du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons, Op. 12. I have known for some time that Brian du Fresne was an organist, but this was the first time I heard him perform. He is really quite excellent, and he has performed with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Ars Nova Singers. From the program notes, I also learned that his first organist position was in England at the age of fourteen. He attended high school in London, Munich, and Naples, and, upon moving to the US, he attended the University of Texas in El Paso. He has two Master’s degrees, one in piano performance, and the other in music education. Mr. du Fresne adds quite a bit of depth to this organization. The Duruflé is a relatively short piece, but it certainly gave Mr. du Fresne the opportunity to make his love for music obvious to the audience. He is a very good organist. Even though short, this piece is difficult.

I must say that the highlight of the evening for me, at least, was the World Premiere of a work, Shakespeare’s Love, by Boulder composer, Paul Fowler. Before I tell you about this work, I will quote from Fowler’s website:

“His initial love for music was borne of the voice, being the child of 2 opera singers. During his formal vocal training, he was awarded by NATS, Milwaukee’s MacAllister Awards and the NFAA Arts Recognition; he sang Nero in Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’ and the Vicar in ‘Albert Herring’ at Ithaca College, and was a soloist with the Syracuse Symphony. Over the past decade, Fowler has explored the voice outside of classical technique, most recently performing overtone (harmonic) singing in the premiere of his chamber orchestra work, ‘Beyond Completely Gone.’ This technique allows Fowler to sing two-voice counterpoint by manipulating the upper harmonics of the voice in conjunction with the fundamental. Within the next year, Fowler will release an album of his choral works performing all voice parts himself, also, a live solo project incorporating the voice and laptop manipulation thereof.

“Fowler makes his home in Boulder, CO, where he conducts the chorus, and teaches theory and world music appreciation at Naropa University – a Buddhist inspired contemplative university. In addition he maintains a private studio for students of voice, composition, piano, and computer production. He has degrees in voice, composition and theater from Ithaca College and a Masters of Music in Composition from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor.”

There were five movements in this new work: As sweet and musical; Love it is a smoke; How silver suite; One touch of nature; and, If music be the food of love.

So many new choral works are similar: twenty-five or thirty years ago, a new style of choral writing evolved, in which composers used a lot of ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords. Many choral composers are still composing in that way, because it was so effective a few years back. There are exceptions of course, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Tarik O’Regan, to name but three. Now, however, there is another exception, and that is Paul Fowler. I have never heard a new choral composer who is so completely original. He uses incredible cascading harmonies that constantly shift – everything seems to move all the time without ever resting. It reminded me very much of how clouds constantly shift and change. This new work is one of the most haunting pieces of music that I have heard in some time. It seemed microtonal, and yet that aspect sometimes seemed almost accidental, compared with what Fowler creates structurally. I would absolutely love to see a score to this work. One of the reasons the Baroque counterpoint is so difficult, is that all of the contrapuntal lines, when they are performed together, as in a four voice fugue for example, must also have vertical (that is to say, harmonic) structure, as well as horizontal structure. It often seemed in Fowler’s new work, that the sound coming from the vertical alignment was not dependent upon the horizontal movement of the voices. There were many dissonances, but they were not as harsh as tone clusters can be. Everything was smooth and silken, and his demands on the dynamic capabilities of the choir were startling. Of course, the Ars Nova Singers truly excels in extreme dynamics, so it is my opinion that he chose very wisely when he selected the Ars Nova Singers to premiere his piece.

Fowler’s compositions have been performed all over the world, and I have no doubt they will continue to be, because he is an absolutely outstanding composer.

Following the intermission was the Processional for Organ, by Henry Cowell. This is yet another piece that I have never heard before, and hearing Brian du Fresne perform made me realize how much I have missed going to organ recitals in the last couple of years. As he performed, the Ars Nova Singers entered  the sanctuary and took their places to sing the final work on the program.

The final work was entitled An Eclectic Organ Mass, and was made up of two Kyrie’s, one Gloria, one Summa, a Sanctus, and an Agnus Dei. All of these were composed by different composers, which included Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, Nico Muhly, Arvo Pärt, David Briggs, and Flor Peeters. It was an absolutely stunning closing to this sensational program. Stunning, because all of these works, again, highlighted the incredible ability the Ars Nova Singers and their conductor, Thomas Edward Morgan, have in producing such a wonderfully true sound of the human voice. As I said above, it has been a long time since I have heard anyone concentrate so hard in pursuing what the human voice is capable of doing.

That concentration is manifest in every measure of music that Morgan conducts, and every measure that the Ars Nova Singers sing. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that they are world-class.

Pipes, Voices, and a World Premiere: The Ars Nova Singers

The renowned Ars Nova Singers will present their final season performance on Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2. If you have never heard them perform before, I would strongly suggest that you attend one of the two performances listed below in their press release. These two performances will also include a World Premiere of a new work by Boulder composer Paul Fowler. In addition, Brian Du Fresne will perform on the organ. Du Fresne is a long time member of the Ars Nova Singers, and to say that he is multitalented is an understatement.

Quoting from Mr. Du Fresne’s website:

“Mr. du Fresne is Director of Vocal Music and Music Theatre at Monarch High School. He also teaches AP Music Theory, Guitar and directs the annual musicals. He started teaching at Monarch in its second year.

“He holds a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Music (piano performance, voice) from the University of Texas, and a second Master’s degree in Music (music education, ethnomusicology) from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He holds the Associate level certification with the American Guild of Organists. Outside of school, Mr. du Fresne is a professional organist and currently serves as Principal Organist at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder. His first job as an organist was at the age of fourteen, for a church just outside of London, England. Since 1994 he has sung with the internationally-acclaimed Boulder-based Ars Nova Signers and has been bass Section Leader for that ensemble since he started with the group. He is Associate Conductor of the Rocky Mountain Chorale.

“Mr. du Fresne has served on the Colorado Music Educators’ Association Board of Directors, as well as the Colorado All State Choir Board of Directors. He is affiliated with the following organizations: Music Educators’ National Conference, Colorado Music Educators’ Association, Phi Mu Alpha National Professional Music fraternity, Golden Key and Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Societies, the Gay/Lesbian/Straight Education Network, Human Rights Campaign, the American Guild of Organists, and the Association of Anglican Musicians.

“His passion is music, and loves every opportunity to share music with the hearts and minds of young people”

This final performance of the Ars Nova Singers will also feature another multitalented individual, who is also a resident of Boulder: composer Paul Fowler. I will quote from Paul Fowler’s website:

“His initial love for music was borne of the voice, being the child of two opera singers. During his formal vocal training he was awarded by NATS, Milwaukee’s MacAllister Awards and the NFAA Arts Recognition; he sang Nero in Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’ and the Vicar in ‘Albert Herring’ at Ithaca College, and was a soloist with the Syracuse Symphony. Over the past decade, Fowler has explored the voice outside of classical technique, most recently performing overtone (harmonic) singing in the premiere of his chamber orchestra work, ‘Beyond Completely Gone.’ This technique allows Fowler to sing two-voice counterpoint by manipulating the upper harmonics of the voice in conjunction with the fundamental. Within the next year Fowler will release an album of his choral works performing all voice parts himself, also, a live solo project incorporating the voice and laptop manipulation thereof.

“As a break from his initial theater and voice studies, Fowler learned to improvise at the piano. Ultimately, this hobby lead to his work as a keyboardist, arranger, and band leader in jazz, world, and other popular music. In 2003, he released his first album, Photograph, produced by Robbie Parrish at Sugar Hill Studios in Houston. He’s performed at New Orleans JazzFest, the AguaZero Festival in Ecuador, Taos Solar Fest, and on Japanese television. He’s played with jazz luminaries Bruce Dunlap, Donald Walden, Rob Schepps, and Andre Wright. After touring for several years with Native American artist and Grammy winner, Robert Mirabal, Fowler was associate producer for his award winning album, “In the Blood,” in 2007. He has produced several local artists of New Mexico and Colorado and performs regularly throughout the region.

“Fowler makes his home in Boulder, CO, where he conducts the chorus, and teaches theory and world music appreciation at Naropa University – a Buddhist inspired contemplative university. In addition, he maintains a private studio for students of voice, composition, piano, and computer production. He has degrees in voice, composition and theater from Ithaca College and a Masters of Music in Composition from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor.”

The following is a press release that I received from the Ars Nova Singers:

“The Ars Nova Singers, a professional-caliber ensemble of 36 choral musicians based in Boulder, will present the final program of their 26th season, New Perspectives: Modern Masterpieces, at two metro-area performances in June. The program includes guest artist Brian du Fresne, organ, and features the world premiere of Shakespeare’s Love by acclaimed Boulder composer Paul Fowler. The performances will be held:

“Friday, June 1, 7:30 p.m. – Saint John’s Cathedral, 1350 Washington Street, Denver Saturday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. – St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine Street, Boulder

“Tickets for the performances are $22 for adults, $16 for seniors, $11 for college students, and $6 for youth ages 6-18). Tickets are on sale at our website: www.arsnovasingers.com or by phone: (303) 499-3165.

“Artistic Director Thomas Edward Morgan: ‘We’re celebrating the renovation of one of Colorado’s finest pipe organs: the historic Kimball organ of Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver. Our program features modern masterpieces for chorus and organ, as well as the world premiere of a spectacular new work for unaccompanied chorus by Paul Fowler, one of Colorado’s finest young composers.’

“In addition to the Fowler premiere, the Singers will perform three early works by the renowned contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and an unusual eclectic organ mass featuring music from six different composers. The program includes the following works:

“Henry Balfour-Gardiner, Te lucis ante terminum
Arvo Pärt, De Profundis
Arvo Pärt, Cantate Domino
Nathan Jones, I Would Live in Your Love
Paul Fowler, Shakespeare’s Love (world premiere)

“An Eclectic Contemporary Organ Mass:

“Louis Vierne, Kyrie (Messe Solenelle)
Maurice Duruf1é, Kyrie (Requiem)
Nico Muhly, Gloria (Bright Mass with Canons, 2005)
Arvo Pärt, Summa (Credo)
David Briggs, Sanctus and Benedictus (Messe de Notre Dame)
Flor Peeters, Agnus Dei (Missa Festiva)

“For further information on the program or the ensemble, please visit our website, or contact Artistic Director Tom Morgan: tom@arsnovasingers.com.”

The Ars Nova Singers: they are beautiful and they are Colorado’s
December 10, 2011, 5:40 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Since I heard the Ars Nova Singers with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra perform the Mozart Requiem, I had been looking forward to their next performance. There always seems to be such a “dry spell” between their performances. It would be wonderful to hear them sing every weekend, but I suppose that is asking too much. Their Christmas concert Friday night, December 9, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, was another remarkable performance.

The program began with a processional by the Ars Nova Singers down the aisles of the church while they sang Ave Maris Stella, which is an old Gregorian chant hymn, certainly from the eighth century, and possibly even the sixth century. It was often used in later years as a piece of cantus firmus, and thus provided the basis of a polyphonic composition. In this concert,  Maestro Morgan led the audience through several historic periods of music, ending with works from the late 20th century.

Rather than just lead you readers through the program in order, I think that I will begin with the work that the Ars Nova Singers performed immediately after the intermission. If there can be a work pinpointed as the outstanding work of the evening, this is it. They performed a Bach chorale entitled Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall, which had been arranged by Edwin London. Bach had a history, as I said in my review of the Christmas Oratorio, of plagiarizing himself. Tom Morgan, in his excellent program notes, quotes Ed London as London explains his arrangement of this particular chorale, which, by the way, is from the Cantata Nr. 2, Chorale Nr. 8, in the Christmas Oratorio. London is quoted thusly: “There is a long tradition of making music out of music. Just as J. S. Bach (with true artistry and respect for his sources) used traditional chorales to build a grand series of musical gems, so may we (with humility) utilize his harmonizations as a starting point on the road to new processes and compositions.”

I point out that this is the same Edwin London who taught at the University of Illinois during my last year at that institution. I also point out that he took the music school by storm, because of his compositions, and because he was such a fine teacher. Below is a very short biographical statement for London. It comes from the webpage of the Cleveland Arts Prize for composition.

“After earning a degree in French horn at Oberlin College, he began his performing career with Orquestra Sinfonica de Venezuela and the Oscar Pettiford Jazz Band.

“London continued his education at the University of Iowa, where he completed a master’s degree in conducting and a doctorate in composition. His principal teachers were P. G. Clapp and Philip Bezanson. He also studied composition with Luigi Dallapiccola, Darius Milhaud and Gunther Schuller. London’s music, published primarily by C. F. Peters Inc., has been recorded on several labels and performed by ensembles across the United States and in Europe.

“London taught at Smith College from 1960 to 1969, then joined the faculty at the University of Illinois. There, he founded Ineluctable Modality, a choral ensemble specializing in new music. From 1978 until his retirement in 2004, he was a faculty member at Cleveland State University, where he formed the award-winning Cleveland Chamber Symphony in 1980.

“Widely honored for his work as a composer, conductor, music director and champion of contemporary American music, London has won numerous awards, including the 2001 Ditson Conductor’s Award and the 1982 Cleveland Arts Prize for composition.”

The work began with an almost direct quote (I say “almost” because I’m sure I heard a few added notes in this chorale that were not Bach’s) of Bach’s famous chorale. Then, gradually, notes are added to each chord of the chorale to create intervals of minor and major seconds, which were not at all used by Bach. In addition, the Ars Nova Singers and Maestro Morgan demonstrated their amazing ability to control dynamics. In this particular instance, I promise you that I do not use the word “amazing” lightly. Hearing everyone in the choir sing so very softly that they were almost in audible, even from the ninth or tenth row of the church, had an amazing effect. This brought back many memories of hearing the Ineluctable Modality in Champaign-Urbana. Morgan has an incredible ability to control what a choir does and how they do it. I can promise you that if Edwin London had been in the audience, he would have been enormously pleased with what he heard. The sound from the Ars Nova Singers simply blossomed like a flower, and then diminished, as if the flower was closing its petals for the night. Morgan also used an innovative technique that London certainly would have approved: some members of the Ars Nova Singers slowly rotated, while others continued to face forward, thus making the sound swell and fade. This is the kind of “innovation” in avant-garde music that makes Maestro Morgan stand head and shoulders above a typical choral conductor. There are probably only two other choir directors in the state of Colorado with this kind of insight into sound.

It was also a very interesting work, because London used the melody of the chorale as a cantus firmus (see the second paragraph of this article) which was placed sometimes above the harmony and sometimes below the harmony, which was provided by Edwin London. Unless you were at this performance, it truly is difficult to imagine where some of these sounds came from, because of the dynamic control the Ars Nova Singers demonstrated. The sound simply appeared, blossomed, and then was gone. I sincerely hope that Friday night’s performance was recorded, and that the resultant CD is offered for sale. I will certainly be first in line.

There was a guest artist on Friday’s program: a terrific guitarist, Benjamin Cantú. I will quote from the program notes:

“Ben Cantú has quickly become one of the most sought after young guitarists in Colorado. He has worked with many ensembles including the Playground Ensemble, Ars Nova Singers, Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, and the Pueblo Symphony Orchestra. Cantú received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and his Master of Music degree from the University of Denver’s Lamont school of Music under the tutelage of Stephen Aron and Ricardo Iznaola. He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder in classical guitar performance with Jonathan Leathwood.”

The 17th work on the program, Christmas Lullaby, written by Jeffrey Van, was a showcase for Cantú to display his musicianship. This was not full of technical daring, but it required great sensitivity and ability to listen to the choir. He was also superb in the following work, the well-known carol, Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella. Cantú never faltered: he was always precisely with Maestro Morgan and the choir, and it was readily apparent that there was a great deal of mutual admiration in each other’s musicianship. However, this should not really be any kind of surprise. Every time I hear the Ars Nova Singers, I am always struck by Thomas Edward Morgan’s ability to choose members of the choir, to choose the pieces on the program, and to choose the guest artist. Of course, those attributes are one of the reasons that the Ars Nova Singers is one of the best choral groups in the United States, and I mean that quite sincerely.

Benjamin Cantú truly took me by surprise when he performed the ninth piece on the program,Villancico de Navidad, by the Paraguayan composer, Augustin Barrios Mangoré. Mangoré’s dates 1885 to 1944. Though he was born in Paraguay, he eventually moved to Argentina, and there he always performed in traditional Paraguayan dress.

The villancico, which is Spanish, but nonetheless related to the Medieval English Carol, eventually became just another Christmas carol. However, this work for solo guitar, to my knowledge at least, has no text whatsoever. But it is beautiful, and Cantú played it with great warmth, and it was truly exquisite.

Friday night’s entire program was full of detail and unbelievably solid musicianship, as one has come to expect from the Ars Nova Singers. Brian Du Fresne proved once again that he is not only a superb member of the choir, but that he can conduct as well, which he did in the work by Jeffrey Nytch, Calm on the Listening Ear of Night.

There were also some wonderful duets and solos by Steve Kientz, Brian du Fresne, Bruce Doenecke, Lou Warshawsky, Evanne Browne, Kim Lancaster, Janet Preloger, Leah Creek Biesterfeld, Paul Munsch, Tara U’Ren, Julie Poelchau, and Steve Winograd. And please understand that some of these solos were on the recorder, not just vocal solos. So, here is another organization that is similar to the Colorado Ballet: everyone in the organization can do something besides “just” sing, and do it extraordinarily well. The Ars Nova Singers has incredible depth.

When I say that Tom Morgan is concerned with detail, I mean just exactly that. If any of you in the audience has noticed, he shifts the singers around on their risers and location during the concert, and sometimes for individual pieces. Why? Because that affects sound production as the audience perceives it. And more importantly, how Morgan perceives it. I say more importantly, because to every artist every detail is important. The artist wants to know, and I can guarantee you that Morgan is one, that the choir (in this case) is doing exactly what he imagines in his mind it is doing. This entails very careful listening and very intense work. But this is why the Ars Nova Singers is one of the best choral groups in the United States.

It is my sincere hope that Maestro Tom Morgan does not uproot them, and take them off to someplace like New York City where they can have unlimited performance opportunities. I am fairly certain that he knows how much the Ars Nova Singers would be missed here in Colorado.


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