St. Martin’s Voices of Nature
Preview by Betsy Schwarm
One full year into social distancing, many of us have wearied of gazing at computer screens. If, perchance, it would take a compelling reason to return to the computer for diversion and entertainment, April 23rd will bring a possibility: the St. Martin Chamber Choir’s Voice of Nature program evoking sea and sky, fresh air and forests. It’s 400 years of music, some of it recent, one a world premiere, and all of it a choral breath of the out-of-doors.
Timothy Krueger, artistic director and conductor of St. Martin’s, confesses that there might seem a surfeit of choral music on nature themes. After all, many poets have mused rapturously about scenery. However, in assembling this program, Krueger chose a more focused approach. “Many Romantic era part-songs… use the natural reference as a metaphor for a lost love, or some other human-oriented reflection. I wanted to bracket out humankind as much as possible, and focus on nature itself.” Thus, St. Martin’s program evokes the forest and the trees, and not too much of the humans who may pass by.
As to trees, Krueger attests that he began with those, thanks to New York City based composer Robert Cohen. St. Martin’s has commissioned music from Cohen in the past, and in this program will perform his Forest, setting a text by Nanci Bern. In Krueger’s opinion, “This piece masterfully contrasts the monolithic majesty of large stands of trees, with the rain drops that lightly drip from their leaves.” Cohen’s work was the first selection on which Krueger set his musical heart; the others build upon contrasting natural views.
By contrast, consider Dockside by Alec Rowley (1892 – 1958). Here, the focus is not dockworkers admiring a river as it flows past, but rather the river itself, which upstream was “lapping by daisied banks,” laboring under the burden of human impacts. “Is this the end you were seeking?” the poet queries, and the fact that Rowley used only male voices may reinforce the less verdant scene. The composer sets solo voices against the ensemble, allowing a variety of timbres to reflect the evolving text.
Other recent works include Canadian composer Sarah Quartel’s nimbly dance-like Songbird, for women’s voices alone, as well as the world premiere of Through the Heart: Songs of Ascending, by DU Lamont School of Music alumna Janet Vanden Bosch. To bring the program to a close, Krueger has chosen Nocturne (1984), an alternately serene and celebratory evocation of the beauty of a summer night, by African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941).
Earlier composers, too, have their place in this St. Martin’s Chamber Choir program. A Monteverdi madrigal suggests murmuring waves, while Schubert gazes upon a restful night, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel offers both peaceful moods and the bright greetings of morning. A movement from Randall Thompson’s Frostiana (1959) captures the calm rapture of star-gazing, complete with a coy refusal to come back in the house – at least not quite yet.
As for the contributions of English composers – some of the greatest masters of part songs – Krueger has chosen Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea, as well as two contrasting works from Charles Villiers Stanford. The latter’s widely beloved The Blue Bird could not be omitted from any choral celebration of nature, though Krueger has gone one step further, also including Stanford’s The Haven. Both set verses by Mary Coleridge (1861 – 1907), one a nature vision entirely in blue (bird, sky, and more), the other all grayness beside the sea. Both are of peaceful demeanor. However, Krueger invites listeners to listen for how Stanford used different keys for the different colors: G-flat major for The Blue Bird and e minor for The Haven.
Thomas Riis, professor of musicology at CU-Boulder, will give the pre-concert talk. Riis and Krueger came to know each other through a shared love of English part songs, and Riis has a long-lasting admiration for the work of St. Martin’s, which has stood at the forefront of Denver-area choral performance for nearly thirty years. Riis says that Krueger’s “personal preference for a small, focused group, as opposed to a much larger ensemble, leads him to recruit voices that ‘fit’ – both as blenders and as soloists – to give the choir … a consistent beauty of tone, over time.” Additionally, Riis appreciates the ensemble’s repertoire “that regularly surprises listeners but also shows off the strengths of the choir.” As listeners will find, surprises can bring delights!
Ah, but what about social distancing? The program will be live-streamed (details below), and throughout the past year, St. Martin’s has been rehearsing at a distance, even though in the same general space. Krueger explains: “We sing in a large circle, with me (and the microphone) in the middle, so that all singers are equidistant from the mic; we use a type of mask designed for singers that is both very safe (silicone seal around the edges) and is of a material that allows for very little impediment of sound.” Such adjustments may make it a challenge to hear each other, to balance and blend the sound, but, as Krueger observes, “we’ve gotten used to it over time, and developed new ways of compensating.”
Audiences, too, have been compensating for the loss – hopefully, a temporary loss – of in-person concerts, and some confess to an unexpected fondness for enjoying a performance from the comfort of their own homes via the internet. St. Martin’s executive director Courtney Huffman admits that this aspect of the past year has made a lasting change to the musical world: “Live streaming is here to stay. It helps us to stay accessible and aids in audience development. The ability to pivot and expand beyond our comfort zone into the live stream arena is what allowed us to stay connected to our audience throughout the pandemic.”
The Voice of Nature concert of the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir will be offered only via livestream on Friday, April 23, starting at 7:30pm. Click here for the ticket link.
Audience members will be provided with a digital program, including not only composer names and titles of works, but also texts (with translations for the few non-English selections). It will be one month too late for the start of spring, but, after all, in Colorado, spring tends to be rather leisurely in its arrival! The Voice of Nature from St. Martin’s: let the internet immerse you in that beauty.