Love and Loss with the Colorado Choir: ‘Tisn’t All Tears
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
“Songs of Love and Loss:” As a title for a choral program, it might lead some to imagine those famously star-crossed lovers. However, in this case, neither Romeo nor Juliet is on the scene, and the “losses” are more tender than tragic. After all, the phrase “love and loss” does not require both feelings to be continually present in every musical selection. Various sides of those concepts will be explored, not necessarily all tearful.
Conductor and artistic director of The Colorado Choir, Kelly Parmenter observes, “We know that loss is inevitable, but we focus our lives on love: love of God, of family and friends, of the Earth, of humankind, and of course romantic love.” Any of those focal points can be joyous or somber in turn. As it happens, in the ensemble’s concerts on this theme for March 2020, one finds more joy than somberness, and new music as well as old.
When it comes to “new music,” one can hardly do better than a world premiere, especially if it’s a work the ensemble itself commissioned, as is the case here. Abandon, by Z. Randall Stroope (b. 1953) sets an English translation of Wer seine Lebens viele Widersinne by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926). Having observed that the choir enjoyed singing Stroope’s music, conductor Parmenter contacted the composer and provided him with a list of his works that The Colorado Choir had previously performed. That information allowed Stroope to anticipate what stylistic approaches would best suit them.
Admitting to a fondness for poetic texts that, in his words, reflect “the emotional collision of several entities that create great tension,” Stroope chose one of Rilke’s verses in which the poet meditates upon the relationship between sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) and Rodin’s student – and muse – Camille Claudel (1864 – 1943).
Having spent time in Paris as Rodin’s secretary, Rilke had had ample opportunity to observe the two, and reflected upon their intimacy:
“In the stillness of the evening,
It’s you she receives.”
Stroope remarks that setting a poetic text is a multi-faceted challenge: “Yes, words have meaning, but the sound of words also is communicative and the taste of words has an emotional connection to the music.” Those aspects, he observes, can be both “wonderfully gratifying and deeply frustrating” for a composer. It was encouraging for Stroope to know that the ensemble for which he was writing this commission was already familiar with his techniques, and that his music would not be entirely unfamiliar to the audience.
Comparably earlier music – though still 21st century – will include A Boy and a Girl by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), Mansions of the Lord by Nick Glennie-Smith (b. 1951), and Earth Song by Frank Ticheli (b. 1958). Whitacre’s piece deals with young love, Glennie-Smith’s with fallen soldiers. As for Ticheli’s, here the troubled earth cries out in the darkness, though, as the composer’s own text consolingly asserts, “music and singing shall be my light.” Each of these three rather recent works is more serene than not, even when reflecting on loss. The choir’s touch with prolonged, sustained tones will be tested, though Parmenter has total faith in her singers: “This program demands a talented choir and we are that.”
The rest of the program ranges from Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907) to English dance songs to American spirituals. Amongst the spirituals is a reverent arrangement of My Lord, What a Mornin’ by African-American composer Harry Burleigh (1866 – 1949), who had studied composition with Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) during the Bohemian master’s tenure at New York City’s National Conservatory of Music. Even more significant to Parmenter is Jack Ballard’s The Welcoming Table, a bright and jubilant spiritual-like telling of a gathering at the Lord’s table. Parmenter says the song became her ‘mantra’ when she was in recovery from complications of surgery on both legs. “In my heart and soul I know that one day I will not only walk around the welcoming table, but I will also hop, skip and run pain free.”
Throughout the program, The Colorado Choir shades its “Love and Loss” theme with vivid colors as well as complementary grays, good cheer and sighs, generally keeping those extremes in balance. Of her singers and their preparation for the program, Parmenter remarks, “Our members are inspired and excited and our emotions run the spectrum. We have taken the time to talk and reflect on this literature and relish the profundity of the program.”
As for audience members, Parmenter says, “My hope is that tonight’s concert will prove to be inspiring, thought- provoking and reflective… “We’re asking the listener to reflect on all kinds of loss, all kinds of love. Life is full of moments that encompass both of those senses. We are sharing our take on that.” Clearly, one is unlikely to be wholly immune to such feelings, but one can certainly muse on how they affect a person and a people as a whole, and also how music might go about expressing them.
The Colorado Choir will give two performances of its “Songs of Love and Loss” program, both at Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 East Hampden – the corner of Hampden and Holly in Cherry Hills Village. The performances will be Friday, March 13, and Saturday, March 14, both evenings starting at 7:30pm. Tickets are available through the choir’s website: https://thecoloradochoir.org/performances/
From soulful sighs to spirited strolls, a wealth of feelings and experiences will take on musical expression with The Colorado Choir.