A Superb and Exciting Program by Kantorei
A Review by Robin McNeil
Friday evening, December 13, I attended a performance given by the choral group Kantorei at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver. Kantorei was formed in 1997 by Richard Larson, and it has rapidly developed into a choir of great merit that has gone on European tours. Richard Larson, after sixteen years conducting the organization, stepped down as the Artistic Director of the group following the 2012- 2013 season, and they are now looking for a full-time director. The Interim Director of Kantorei is Sarah Harrison, and the three paragraphs below are from her bio statement on Kantorei’s website:
“Sarah Harrison is serving as the Interim Director of Kantorei for the 2013-2014 season. In addition to Kantorei, she is in her eighth year teaching choir and AP Music Theory at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village. Under her direction, choirs have appeared at several regional and state conventions. Prior to Cherry Creek, Ms. Harrison opened and spent five years at Silver Creek Middle/Senior High School in Longmont, CO.
“In addition to school, she sings with various ensembles throughout the community and is an orchestral and jazz string bassist. Ms. Harrison has been a guest conductor and adjudicator in Colorado, Idaho, and Nebraska. Ms. Harrison is currently serving as Colorado’s ACDA High School Mixed Repertoire and Standards Chair. She also served as Choir Director and Organist at Westview Presbyterian Church in Longmont and taught orchestra in Minnesota before moving to CCHS.
“Ms. Harrison obtained her Bachelor of Music Education degree, with instrumental and vocal certification, from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and her Master of Music in conducting and music education from Colorado State University. She will conduct Kantorei for the entirety of the 2013-2014 concert season, while the group completes a search for a permanent Artistic Director and Conductor to begin in July, 2014.”
Kantorei, according to the program notes, is a fifty-two member choir, though I counted fifty-three in the program. I bring this up only because it is a large choir, and large choirs sometimes have their own unique problems. For example, the larger the choir the more difficult it is to have good diction. But, the first thing that caught my attention Friday evening was that the diction of this choir is well-nigh perfect. To have such good diction, every member of the choir must be singing together so that syllables start at the same time and end at the same time. Once that is done, attention to phrasing comes next, but if the diction is excellent, chances are greatly increased that the phrasing will be good as well. It was. Keep in mind, that the program notes state that most of the members of this choir have some kind of extensive musical training. It shows.
Of course, the question that I am leading up to is why is Kantorei still looking for a new Artistic Director? Sarah Harrison certainly demonstrated that she is quite capable of filling those shoes. The blend of the choir, influenced by the scattered placement of different voices throughout, was excellent. The dynamic range that she achieved from this fifty-two voice choir was superb. I will say it again: she clearly understands diction, bland, dynamics, and phrasing. In addition she demonstrated a marvelous capability of obtaining those qualities from the choir itself. It was a wonderful demonstration of a keen musician’s ear guiding a choir to give their utmost.
She opened the program with an exciting work entitled Hodie Christus Natus Est by the Argentine composer Ariel Quintana. Quintana is a relatively young composer, born in 1965, who is now working on his Doctorate in Choral Conducting at the University of Southern California. He graduated from the Buenos Aires Conservatory with degrees in piano performance.
This was the perfect piece with which to open the program because it is exciting and vigorous. Maestra Harrison stood in the center aisle of St. John’s Cathedral, after dividing the choir; one half in the front of the church, and the other in the rear of the church. It was a very effective antiphonal performance that filled the church with a wonderful balance of the singers. Harrison seemed to have an ability to take advantage of the acoustics in St. John’s, which can sometimes be a little difficult. It is an absolutely excellent piece that is full of deceptive resolutions of major and minor seconds that comprise much of the harmony.
One aspect of Friday evening’s performance that took me quite by surprise was Maestra Harrison’s persuasive combining of different works, six different compositions in the first combination, to comprise a section of the program. It was almost as if she considered the individual pieces to be parts of a suite. And, I hasten to point out, that the composers were quite disparate. For example, this first group of six compositions included the composers Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704), a Baroque composer renowned for writing liturgical music; Christopher Aspaas (b. 1973) who teaches voice and choral conducting at St. Olaf College; and Philip Lawson (b. 1957), an English composer, who is also a choral clinician. The works chosen from these composers were portions of the Mass and a Carol, the text of which was written by Jean de Brébeuf a French missionary who died in Canada in 1649. The combination of these works, even though each was so different, was quite effective, and certainly displayed a great deal of musical imagination and perspicacity.
Another item worthy of note, I believe, is that several compositions on the program required the use of soloists. That’s nothing unusual, of course; however, the number of vocal soloists that participated was twenty-two. There were not just two or three soloists that were used several times. All twenty-two of the soloists sounded as though they had had extensive vocal training; i.e., degrees in voice. These were all members of Kantorei. None of them were guest artists. That is surprising depth even for a choir of fifty-two singers. In addition, I was surprised to learn that Maestra Sarah Harrison is an accomplished jazz bass player, and she demonstrated that skill, along with Kevin Gunnerson on percussion, in the performance of the late George Shearing’s Christmas Carol Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, which is based on the poem by Shakespeare. As my memory serves me, this work is from a set of Shakespearean poems that were set to music by George Shearing.
For my part, the most beautiful work on the program was Winter Song by American composer Gregory J. Hutter (b. 1971), who is a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a faculty member at DePaul University. This was another work on the program that was most certainly tonal, but where dissonances were created by the intervals of major and minor seconds that were sometimes deceptive in their resolution.
Another work on the program that was absolutely outstanding was entitled Northern Lights by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977). His orchestral, chamber and choral works have been performed worldwide. This is a very descriptive piece, and Justin Kerr, the tenor soloist from the choir, was spectacular performance. He has a crystal clear voice with effortless production.
This was an outstanding program. The music was well-chosen: there was absolutely nothing that was a cliché on this program. It was fresh and beautifully done. I must also mention the pianist with the group, Alyssa Rigsby. A graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, she is a wonderful pianist and seemed to fit very comfortably with everything that Maestra Harrison asked for. It has been a long time since I have heard this group, and I must emphasize that I normally associate a fine choir performance with a group of individuals that is smaller. As I said above, the larger the choir the less the musicianship shows through. I sometimes think that here in America everyone has the concept that huge choirs are always better because they make a bigger sound. This choir certainly made a huge sound, but I emphasize that I could understand every word they said, and their entrances, and periods of rest were truly superb. It left me wondering why Kantorei is searching for a new director. Why don’t they just keep Maestra Sarah Harrison?