The Master Singers’ upcoming concerts can be seen as a sort of musical journey, and the Eau Claire-based choir is traveling many actual miles for one of the performances.
The 40-member group will present “Choral Images 2019: Requiem for the Living” at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Congregational Church in Eau Claire as part of its 26th concert season. They will perform the same program at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
Then in July, some of the works from “Choral Images” will be sung by an approximately 350-voice choir, including the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Choir, at a Paris choral festival in July to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“Everything involved with this program is involved with the 75th anniversary,” said Gary Schwartzhoff, Master Singers artistic director and founding conductor. Schwartzhoff will be artistic director and conductor of the Paris festival choir, composed of singers from 14 choral programs throughout the U.S. The 80-person contingent from Eau Claire, including Master Singers members, is the largest single group.
The major piece on all performances will be “Requiem for the Living,” a 2013 composition by contemporary American composer Dan Forrest.
Schwartzhoff noted that, as the title suggests, Forrest gives added meaning to the term “requiem,” typically thought of as a musical work for the dead. But Schwartzhoff thought the occasion merited a different take in the effort to honor the so-called “Greatest Generation,” who, as he put it, “quite literally saved the planet in my estimation” with the landing June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, France, during World War II.
“And to honor the veterans and those deceased, I thought it was time to speak to all of us — the living,” added Schwartzhoff, who enjoys studying military history.
During the Eau Claire concert, the Master Singers will be joined on “Requiem for the Living” by members of the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra. Schwartzhoff said the groups have collaborated in previous years and he’d be interested in working together more often.
“We’re well-suited for one another in terms of our size,” he said.
One of the Master Singers performers offered high praise for Forrest’s composition.
“It’s just a remarkable piece of work,” said Jim Forster, who has sung with the Master Singers since the latter part of their first season. “It’s just fun to sing.”
Forster, who was born and raised Catholic, said this requiem reminds him of the funeral Masses he attended as a child.
“It was such a somber thing because it was for somebody that you lost, but this is for everybody,” he said. “And with the Chamber Orchestra, that just adds a whole new dimension.”
In choosing a requiem for the Paris trip, Schwartzhoff could have selected a famous work from Frenchman Gabriel Faure. His requiem is considered the best-known of his large works, and the Master Singers are performing at the Paris church, L’eglise de la Madeleine, where he was the longtime director of music and organist.
But Schwartzhoff decided on a requiem that represents American composition and reflects the role the U.S. played in World War II to, as he put it, “help save the world.”
The Master Singers are performing a notable Faure work while at the Paris festival. For the motet “Cantiquede Jean Racine,” the then-19-year-old composer set the text in 1864–65 for a composition competition at the École Niedermeyer de Paris, and it won him the first prize.
Another piece on the Master Singers’ “Choral Images” program that figuratively takes the audience back to the WWII-era shores of France is “Neither Angels, Nor Demons, Nor Powers.” The work also will be sung by the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Choir at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
“I just think it really speaks to the issues,” Schwartzhoff said, quoting some of the lyrics: “Neither things present nor things to come/Neither heighth nor depth nor any other creature/shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” He added that, to him the phrase “including Hitler” would fit appropriately after “creature” in that section.
Forster, who also takes a keen interest in military history, expressed admiration for those who served.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect for what those people were thinking on their way into the beach and didn’t make it,” he said.
Also being performed locally and in Paris, “Eternal Father Strong to Save” has often been part of momentous occasions. Referred to as the Navy Hymn and with a setting composed by Forrest, it has been sung or played at funerals for the following dignitaries: former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush as well as Walter Cronkite and Sen. John McCain.
For the Saturday performance at the Minneapolis church, the Master Singers will be returning to a choral series they’ve been a part of for more than 20 years. The church’s concept, Schwartzhoff said, was to open the door to collegiate and community ensembles such as theirs to sing at the 5 p.m. Mass.
“I describe it to the Master Singers as our European tour on an afternoon,” Schwartzhoff said. “Where else are you going to find acoustics like this?”
At the Eau Claire and Minneapolis concerts, the Master Singers will be joined by Basilica of St. Mary organist Christopher Stroh. He will perform on “Requiem for the Living,” “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” “Cantique” and “Let Peace Then Still the Strife.”
Schwartzhoff, UW-Eau Claire music professor emeritus, said he has made it a priority to perform on occasions involving heads of state and historic world events. As part of that effort he has been a part of concerts paying tribute to presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also performed at commemorations of the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day.
Those experiences, he said, likely was why he was asked to direct the huge choir in Paris.
He’s looking forward to serving in that role, saying, “Of note and scale this is probably the crown jewel.”
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