From Verdi to Lauridsen with The Colorado Choir
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
Imagine a large group of singers, performing gloriously beautiful music together. What composer would you like it to be? Perhaps something grandly operatic by Verdi, or would you prefer something lush and serene by Lauridsen? If your vote is for both, in close order, then The Colorado Choir’s season-closing concerts May 10 and May 11 might be exactly what you need.
Verdi’s name is, by far, the more familiar of the two. Very late in life, the opera master wrote an Ave Maria setting for a cappella chorus. Over the next decade, he wrote three additional short, sacred choral pieces, one also a cappella, the others with instrumental accompaniment. The Four Sacred Pieces premiered together in Paris during Easter Week of 1898, the year that Verdi would turn 85, and fully five years after the premiere of Falstaff, the last of his 28 operas. One might reflect upon an elderly composer turning so late in life to sacred music, after having spent over half a century in the profane world of opera. However, Verdi was in fine health and would last another three years; by all accounts of those who knew him best, he was far from conventionally religious. Perhaps, at this late date, he simply thought to try his hand at something to which so many of his countrymen had given their attention.
Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces fill the first half of The Colorado Choir program. Very nearly a century later, in 1993, American composer Morton Lauridsen (b. 1943) produced his Les chansons des roses (Songs of Roses). The title is French because the texts are French; however, the settings are of verses by Czech-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), who far more frequently wrote in German. His Les chansons des roses, gentle or passionate by turn, have the feel of love songs. Admittedly, they are sung to a rose, not to a lady, though Rilke would not have been the first poet to use flower analogies for visions of longing and beauty.
So the two works to be paired on The Colorado Choir programs have quite different purposes. Verdi offered tributes to the Virgin Mary and the Lord; Lauridsen concerned himself instead with Rilke’s replenished blooms, overflowing dreams and “tenderness touching tenderness.”
Their sound worlds are also distinct. Verdi is channeling his finely-honed operatic senses as to how one conveys the meaning of a few lines of text. What suits it best: reflective serenity or passionate drama? At either extreme, the developing progressive ideas of the approaching 20th century are not yet in view, and if occasionally, Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces suggest a grand operatic chorus, perhaps complete with parading elephants, this is, after all, the man who’d composed Aïda.
As for Lauridsen, given his much later generation, one might suspect him to embrace modernistic notions of how to build a chord without echoing too much of the past, as well as how to move from that chord to the next. Admittedly, Lauridsen’s harmonies are more open than Verdi’s; nonetheless, they still proceed across the page without undue darkness. If one ever wondered whether current composers were still able and willing to write music that it simply beautiful and never falls into dystopian fury, Lauridsen’s music provides a decidedly affirmative answer.
The two works are not often paired on a single program. Verdi’s spans three-quarters of an hour, and though two of the movements (the Ave Maria and the Laudi alla Vergine Maria) are a cappella, the other two (Stabat mater and Te Deum) occasionally require emphatic orchestral accompaniment. The Laudi goes one step further, being only women’s voices, with no masculine participation at all. The movement is sometimes done with four soloists, rather than full women’s chorus, though the Colorado Choir chose to use all the ladies together.
The Lauridsen, half the length of the Verdi, is mostly a cappella. Only one movement – the last – has even piano participation, and even there, it is not always present. Otherwise, Lauridsen’s work is a singers-only showcase.
For reasons of space as much as any other purpose, The Colorado Choir will be replacing that Verdi orchestra with an organ, at which guest organist Linda Mack will do the honors. In the Lauridsen, the piano part for the closing movement “Dirait-on” (One would say) will be taken by pianist Mary Dailey.
The Colorado Choir’s conductor, Kelly Parmenter, chose to perform the two works together so as to emphasize what she calls their “differing views of life.” Verdi was a religious skeptic wondering, at least in passing, about the after-life. By contrast, Lauridsen has chosen poetry that reflects upon love and life: the right now, not the speculative future. As Parmenter says, “These themes are not only huge, but they play a role in each of our lives in some way or other. Faith and love can both present themselves in many different ways, but how we incorporate them into our daily lives: that’s humanity.”
Friday, May 10th and Saturday, May 11th, both evening starting at 7:30pm, The Colorado Choir will present its Verdi/Mortensen program at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 4500 Wadsworth Boulevard. It is a new venue for the ensemble, and one chosen specifically because of its splendid organ. A lesser instrument would like fall short of requirements for the Verdi Four Sacred Pieces. Since the ensemble will be recording both concerts for a future CD release, having the best possible instrument at its disposal was crucial. As to “best possible” voices, The Colorado Choir is always reliable in that department. Founded in 1976, the ensemble long ago honed its recruitment, rehearsal, and performance practices to as to be able to tackle even unusually challenging repertoire with the finesse that it deserves.
For tickets and concert information, visit The Colorado Choir’s website:
If Verdi’s reflections on eternity seem serious, take heart! Lauridsen’s reflection on the beauty of roses occupies the second half of the program. So The Colorado Choir’s May concerts end on an upbeat note.