Opus Colorado

The Ars Nova Singers in Denver

Every once in while, a concert comes along that takes me completely by surprise, even though I may have heard of the soloist, the orchestra, or the group that presents the concert. Such was the case Friday night, October 9, at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver. The concert was given by the Ars Nova Singers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of music literature, the Ars Nova period was from 1300 to 1400, and it gave birth to the isorhythmic motet in France and the Madrigal in Italy. In short, this was the “new music” of the day. Today’s Ars Nova Singers perform the new music of our day. This was the first time that I have heard them perform, and I remain stunned at the beauty and quality of the performance.

The Ars Nova Singers is a choir of thirty-two individuals led by Artistic Director Thomas Edward Morgan, and it has to be one of the best choirs in the country. I say this because no matter how softly they sang, or how loudly they sang, I could understand every single word. I have not heard a choir like this since I left my undergraduate alma mater, Indiana University. There, pianists like myself had to augment various choirs, and I was at times conducted by George Krueger, who was Associate Director of Chorus under Rachmaninoff and Toscanini, sometimes Hugh Johnson, sometimes Fiora Contino, and sometimes Robert Stoll. All of these conductors, and I must also include the entire voice faculty (for whom I did much accompanying), emphasized diction first and foremost, so much so, that diction almost became a trademark of any of the music school choirs, whether it was a concert choir or an opera chorus. So, I have been quite spoiled when I listen to other choirs. Thomas Edward Morgan is an individual that I now rank with the above mentioned choral conductors.

The concert on Friday featured choral works accompanied by cello, harp, and soprano soloist. The guest artists were Jurgen De Lemos (recently retired as Principal Cellist with the Colorado Symphony), cello; Tana Cochran (well known throughout the region), soprano; and Rachel Starr Ellins (Instructor of Harp at Colorado State University), harp.

The work that opened the program was by the well-known Estonian choral composer, Veljo Tormis, and was entitled Helletused (Childhood Memory – Herding Calls). This composition, dedicated to the memory of the composer’s sister, created the image of a very poignant pastorale devoted to the memories of past and lost childhood. It was a tonal composition in which the choir provided a background quite similar to an ostinato for Tana Cochran. Much of the harmony seemed to be centered around 13th chords which created a very haunting feeling, particularly, considering the amazing dynamic range. The second piece on the program was Sound Canticle on Bay Psalm 23, by Gregg Smith. This was based on a Psalter (a book of Psalms) from the Massachusetts Bay colony of 1698. It was a polytonal piece with a quartet in the center flanked by choirs on either side, though not quite as antiphonal as Gabrieli. Again, the dynamics were amazing. And I must also say that I was amazed at the vigorousness with which Thomas Morgan conducted. He communicated what he wanted on every single note and every single phrase, even every syllable, and the choir unfailingly responded to his hard work. It was very clear that they were as excited with these pieces as he was. It was also very clear that they love music as much as he does. It has been a very long time since I have heard a choir so concerned with the minutest of detail.

There followed three pieces for cello and harp wondrously done by de Lemos and Ellins. They performed an Adagio by Handel, a piece entitled Prayer by Ernest Bloch, and Elegia, op 22, by Luigi Maurizio Tedeschi. I found Bloch composition the most interesting, because it sounded very much like it was based on themes sung by a Jewish cantor. It was very beautiful indeed.

Immediately before the intermission, the Ars Nova Singers presented the Colorado premier of two compositions by English composer Tarik O’Regan. O’Regan is rapidly establishing himself as a brilliant composer of the liturgical music, and these two works are evidence of his creativity and imagination. Entitled Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis: Variations for Choir, they were commissioned separately by Timothy Brown for the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. In these works for choir and cello, he uses traditional chant melodies sung by a quartet, then followed by the full choir, giving an almost responsorial effect. At times, the choir seemed to provide an ostinato for the quartet. O’Regan used both polytonality and tonality, and the work makes use of a double choir, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists. O’Regan is incredibly gifted as a composer for the choir. This composition of two combined works had a very definite otherworldly sound, and I genuinely believe that he is one composer in which the future of choral composition lies. This is without question one of his major works.

Following the intermission, the Ars Nova Singers performed two works by the English minimalist composer, John Tavener. And by the way, he is a direct descendent of the 16th century English composer of the same name – John Tavener. Minimalism in music was an American innovation from the 1960s and involves any music that works with limited materials, pieces that have only a few notes for example, or pieces that use only one or two instruments. It often includes music that utilizes a drone of some kind, whether it is electronic, instrumental, or vocal. Often, the melodic notes above the drone can take a very long time to change, so that the composition seems to employ very few notes. This was the case in the first Tavener work called Svyati. The cello, played by Jurgen de Lemos, had a melody that sounded distinctly Middle Eastern because it moved in stepwise motion, but often had small leaps of one and a half steps. The bass section of the choir provided a drone which was quite soft and remarkably controlled. How can the human voice be so soft for such a great length of time and be produced so evenly? But they did it. Of his composition, John Tavener said, and I quote, “The text is in Church Slavonic, and it is used at almost every Russian Orthodox service, perhaps most poignantly after the congregation have kissed the body in an open coffin at an Orthodox funeral. The choir sings as the coffin is closed and borne out of the church, followed by the mourners with lighted candles. The cello represents the Priest or Ikon of Christ, and should play at a distance from the choir, perhaps at the opposite end of the building. As is Greek drama, choir and priest are in dialogue with each other. Since the cello represents the Ikon of Christ, it must be played without any sentiment of a Western character, but should derive from the chanting of the Eastern Orthodox Church.”

The second Tavener work was a set of six songs entitled Akhmatova Songs. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is one of the best known 20th-century poets that Russia has produced. She had a painful life because it encompassed two world wars and the Stalinist regime. If my memory serves me correctly, she was one of the poets, artists, and composers (including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky) who were summoned to appear before the Central Communist Committee in 1948, where they were told that their art was worthless and not in the true Soviet tradition. These six songs were for solo voice and cello. They are absolutely beautiful and encompass a wide range of pitches in which Tana Cochran seemed absolutely comfortable. In addition, she captured the emotional essence of all six songs wonderfully well. She has a marvelous voice for these songs, and it is my hope that the Ars Nova Singers will perform them again.

The concert closed with two pieces for choir and cello; Nada te turbe, by Joan Szymko, and Deep Peace, by Boulder’s Bill Douglas. These two pieces ended the program on a superbly quiet note.

This was a very satisfying program produced by a group of people and soloists who are true artists. I might add that the public needs to hear more of Rachel Starr Ellins. She is a fine harpist whose playing is full of vivacity and warmth. The program notes stated that under Thomas Morgan’s leadership, the Ars Nova Singers has become one of the premiere ensembles in the region. However, I believe they have every reason to become one of the premiere ensembles in the United States.

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I have attended nearly every Ars Nova concert in Denver for the past few years and this, by far, was *the* most awe inspiring and graceful performance I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. The current lineup of singers is probably the best ensemble of the group so far. There was definitely something other worldly about the unison of these angelic voices rising and filling the spires of St. John’s Cathedral that evening. To call the music ‘beautiful’ would be unjust. There are simply no words to define the exuberant tranquility in their combined voices.

The highlight of the evening, in my opinion, was the final song ‘Deep Peace’ which I had been eagerly waiting to hear in person ever since I first started attending their concerts. As they started out with that first long unwavering note I knew I would not be disappointed. Sitting there in the second pew under ancient rows of stained glass my eyes swelled with tears. There is something so very hauntingly emotional about that song, it’s hard to define what it means to me and my family.
Hopefully they will find a way to include Bill Douglas’ work in every performance.

Friday night’s concert was everything I had hoped for and more. We are truly blessed here in Colorado to have a group as fine as this in our presence.

Comment by Natalie

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