A Stellar Show by Ars Nova Singers at Fiske Planetarium
A review by Gwen Gray
In a bold, big-budget move (tested by a giant snowstorm that required an entire weekend of performances be rescheduled), Ars Nova Singers’s recent concert, “Out of This World: A Choral Odyssey,” launched the already adventurous choral company into a new universe. Or more accurately, countless galaxies — those projected inside one of the most technically advanced theaters in the world: CU Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium.
Artistic director Thomas Edward Morgan, who has long dreamed of an Ars Nova performance at Fiske, selected the music with the venue in mind, and worked with Fiske’s navigator to the universe, Murthi Nauth, to stage a fitting accompaniment to the group’s celestial voices. I caught the sold-out show on Sunday evening, March 8, 2015.
As guests entered the domed theater, the singers stood at its circumference, each equipped with tiny reading lights that illuminated their sheet music and glowed like stars in the dimmed theater. Their voices rose up the curved walls and warmed the room with sound as guests took their seats. Then the singing “stars” traveled up to the stage to join Morgan, poised in white gloves that glowed in the darkness.
The first selection of the evening was the 16th-century “Libera nos, salva nos” by John Sheppard. Single points of light silently zoomed across the screen above, as everyone leaned back to gaze and listen. By the second piece, Bill Douglas’ “Earth Prayer,” the stars swirled wildly and a massive image of Earth ballooned onto the screen, with North America illuminated by glimmers of electrical lights as seen from afar, the primal resonance of the voices now seeming to serve as commentary to the fate of our tiny existence within a vast universe.
The vocals and projections seemed to build in complexity and intensity through the rest of the evening: Wind-whisking vocal effects and microphone-slapping percussion had everyone sitting at attention in Paul Fowler’s “Calling.” Complex, spiraling galaxies matched an absolutely transcendent rendition of Philip Glass’ “Knee Play No. 3.” A tiny cluster of firefly-like green stars danced and delicately led us through Arvo Pärt’s “Da pacem Domine.” And the riveting and recognizable “Tango to Evora” by Loreena McKennit was paired with an equally salacious, intimate view of Saturn and its mysterious rings, while soloist Emma Vawter’s voice enraptured the audience.
The one small exception to the cleverness of the song-and-star pairings occurred during Will Todd’s “Angel Song II.” Constellations of cartoonish angels’ wings dotted the screen — a risky, too-literal interpretation that earned a few snorts from the audience.
But in the final song, the rhythmic, pulsing “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye Barnwell, a projection of Earth faded away to be replaced by stellar explosions of purple, blue, green and red, and Ars Nova sung of “…sitting here wanting memories to teach me / To see the beauty in the world / Through my own eyes.” A fitting end to a concert that asked the question, “What do you know about the world, the universe in which you live?”
The evening’s printed program included, as epigraph, Sara Teasdale’s poem “Stars,” which begins, “Alone in the night / On a dark hill / With pines around me / Spicy and still” and ends with “I know that I / Am honored to be / Witness / Of so much majesty.”
The performance was indeed infused with mystery and reverence for this wondrous, astral universe and, within it, the planet that we call home. Leaning back in my chair, surrounded by glimmering, manmade cosmos in a theater just a stone’s throw from the spicy, pine-scented foothills of Boulder, engulfed in the evening’s synthesis of science and art, I, too, was honored to be witness.