Return and Restoration: A New Season with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir
By Betsy Schwarm
In troubled times, music can be the perfect balm: soothing the soul and heartening one for the future. Alas that, for the past year and a half, live music experiences have been all too rare, for performers and audiences alike, though encouraging developments await! The new season for the Denver area’s St. Martin’s Chamber Choir [SMCC] begins soon, with both in-person and live-stream options, new venues, and an abundance of compelling repertoire.
Each program in the season (beginning September 24; six programs in all) is built around a central theme. Sometimes, the theme came first; at others, a theme was developed around a major work that artistic director and conductor Timothy Krueger was determined to perform. Themes were the launching points for two programs set for late in the season: Songs of Pilgrimage: Camino de Santiago and After the Pilgrimage: The Journey Home.
Krueger attests that a friend had made the Santiago pilgrimage many times, and asked if “a concert might be fashioned around it.” That friend was not expecting two programs, but there was sufficient material to expand upon the idea.
Then there are programs that began with a specific work. Having come to know the spiritual settings of American-born/Canadian-based composer Nathaniel Dett (1882 – 1943), Krueger began there, then added other composers, some of African heritage, some not, but all fitting into Krueger’s “alternate sense of ‘Renaissance’: not that of Michelangelo and Friends, nor even Harlem, but of early 20th century American music-making in general. For the American Renaissance program, with SMCC’s Cameo Ensemble, Dett will be joined by Florence Price (1887 – 1953) and William Grant Still (1895 – 1978), but also Amy Beach (1867 – 1944), Leo Sowerby (1895 – 1968), and others.
Of the season opening concerts on September 24 and 26, there, too, the major work came first, and then the theme. However, the theme would have been in the back of many minds for months: In Memoriam: The Victims of the Pandemic. Krueger had been intending to muster his singers for Brahms’ German Requiem (1869), written in memory of the composer’s mother. This Brahms is not the bearded gentleman one usually sees, but rather, a handsome fresh-faced young man early in his career. Usually, the German Requiem is performed with orchestra, chorus and soloists; however, Brahms also crafted a version for piano four-hands (one piano, but two pianists. Given that St. Martin’s often performs in smaller spaces where there might not be space (or budget) for a full orchestra, the piano four-hands version seemed ideal. Might some listeners miss the orchestra? Krueger says, “what one loses in orchestral colors, one gains in the transparency of Brahms’ counterpoint.” Replacing the orchestra with a pair of pianists allows the crystalline clarity of those constructions to stand more clearly to the ear.
One venue new to the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir schedule is one of Colorado’s most storied hotels, the Brown Palace. Since 1892, the Brown (as it is widely known) has been home to classy lodgings, dining, and afternoon tea; music has been a part of that tradition, most recently curated by musical coordinator John Kite. By happenstance, Kite and Krueger were classmates at Bear Creek High School, and when Kite had the idea of adding something to the line-up, it was Krueger he called. The November 1 performance of the American Renaissance program, with seating in the lobby at cocktail tables, and food and drinks available for order. Imagine the voices of SMCC’s Cameo Ensemble resonating in the Brown’s nine-story atrium: that should be striking for performers and listeners alike!
Each program on St. Martin’s schedule for 2021 – 2022 will be available as live-attendance events, one of which (for each program) will also be offered online as livestream. Live-streaming became part of SMCC’s reality during the pandemic. The choir’s executive director Courtney Huffman says, “It was something we had discussed in previous years as a way to continue to engage audiences … We were thrilled with the outcome, and have decided to continue live streaming indefinitely in order to create further access and inclusion, and to expand our audience base.”
Of course, even in times of improving openness, COVID is still a force to be reckoned with. Being an ensemble that sings, St. Martin’s has been aware of this from the beginning. As Krueger observes, “singing is an ‘aerosol-rich’ activity,” so everyone in the ensemble is required to be vaccinated. He has also asked each singer to acquire a “resonance singer’s mask” so as to contain droplets without suppressing fullness of voice. As to audience members, Hoffman asserts that the ensemble is confirming specific requirements with each venue, and an informational page on the SMCC website (below) details these requirements. In very brief, attendees cannot go wrong by supposing that they’d best wear a mask if attending the performance in person. After all, masks will not restrict one’s hearing, and are unlikely to distract from enjoying the event.
The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir season opens Friday, September 24, with a performance at Denver’s Plymouth Congregational Church (Hampden and Colorado Boulevard). The program is centered upon the German Requiem of Brahms, though also includes music of remembrance by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924), Terry Schlenker (b. 1957) and Carlotta Ferrari (b. 1975). The Plymouth performance begins at 7:30 PM; those who prefer a matinee can join SMCC at Bethany Lutheran Church (Hampden and Holly) at 3pm on Sunday September 26. A livestream will be offered for the Friday performance, and tickets for either performance (either livestream or in-person attendance) are available from the St. Martin’s website:
In Memoriam from the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir: some of it sorrowful, most of it hopeful, and all of it beautiful. Join St. Martin’s for a return to live performances!