A Passing of the Baton with Kantorei
A review by Ruth L. Carver
Kantorei, one of Denver’s foremost choirs, closed its season this past weekend with a symbolic hand off of leadership, in a concert featuring its Conductor Emeritus and founder, Dick Larson, current Interim Conductor Sarah Harrison (who will continue as assistant conductor), and the newly chosen Artistic Director Joel Rinsema. In a program of mixed inspirational and world choral music, the three conductors showed off the choir’s fresh-voiced and powerful sound, and Rinsema proved he’ll be a fit with the choir and audiences alike.
Harrison led things off with a set of world music arrangements, as the choir entered from the back of the hall at Augustana Lutheran Church (seen May 16, 2014), beating drums in the Zulu prayer “Ukuthula.” The thrumming Chinese “Dragon Dance” followed immediately, with the choir precisely buzzing through its exciting rhythms. Harrison deftly led them through the rapidly interweaving lines of Lithuanian folk song “Tykus Tykus,” and when the piece settled briefly into a hymn-like homophony, the full-bodied sound of the choir was stunning. The set closed with a male voice setting of the Hebrew song “El Yivneh Hagalil,” an exuberant and beautiful show piece for the men of the choir.
Larson then took over, leading the choir through classic Spiritual settings including “Deep River,” “There Will Be Rest,” and the Langston Hughes poem “Fire.” Art Bouton joined for the soprano saxophone solo on Anders Paulsson’s arrangement of “Deep River,” a remarkably placid, meditative setting which created a subtle sense of stillness. Frank Ticheli’s “There Will Be Rest” achieved a transcendent quality, with its beautiful ascending melodic lines, and a final, powerful afterglow of sound echoing through the cavernous hall. Pianists Cathy Motter and Alicia Rigsby joined the choir for flurry of music in William Averitt’s ”Afro-American Fragments, 6. Fire.” The piano faced upstage, which allowed the choir to hear it clearly, but many of the intricate rhythms sounded muddy in the hall. But the difficulty of the piece showed off the dynamic range and precision of the choir, and made for a fiery close to the first half. Larson founded the choir in 1997, and made it into one of the region’s best groups. The moment to pass on leadership was bittersweet, but the group appears poised to continue their success and reinvigorate their signature sound.
Rinsema leaves his post as the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Chorale, a choir renowned for similar repertoire to Kantorei and a focus on choral blend – making him an ideal leader for Kantorei. He also has some Colorado roots, and at the concert he gratefully acknowledged his parents and some grade school music teachers of his who were in attendance. He will continue his work as president and CEO of the Phoenix Chorale, as he takes over artistic leadership of Kantorei. This mix of business and artistry should make him a powerful new figure here. The choir stood in a mixed-voice formation as he began his set with Kim André Arnesen’s “Even When He is Silent,” a goose bump-raising and luminous piece. His attention to detail was evident as the choir closed the piece with a final “T” which was sent to the audience like a gentle, synchronized kiss.
A heartfelt rendition of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” made famous by Dolly Parton, followed, here with soprano Juliane Dowell as the sweet songbird soloist. Choral composer superstar Ola Gjeilo’s “Evening Prayer” closed Rinsema’s set, as he created a lush, rich tapestry of sound between the choir, Rigsby’s piano, and Bouton’s tenor sax. The evening ended with Harrison leading the fun, exotic “Jai Ho!” (from the film Slumdog Millionaire) and the triumphal, rousing “We Rise Again” arranged by Stephen Smith. This potpourri of repertoire gave the audience a taste of everything Kantorei is capable of, and raised excitement about what the future holds under Rinsema’s baton.