The Master Singers are embracing a challenge for the opening concert of their 27th season.
On Sunday afternoon in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s RCU Theatre, the Eau Claire-based vocal ensemble will present “Carmina Pax” (“Peace Songs”), a work that had its premiere earlier this year in New York’s Carnegie Hall. In exploring the monumental subjects of conflict and peace, the seven-movement, 30-minute composition for choir and chamber orchestra features varied texts, themes and music.
Gary R. Schwartzhoff, Master Singers artistic director and founding conductor, saw the work’s potential for the group when he discovered it.
“It caught my attention from the standpoint of the work, its length, its orchestra, its content as in: It could possibly fit us,” he said. In addition, the Master Singers previously have commissioned works from J. Randall Stroope, “Carmina Pax’s” esteemed composer.
The piece balances both grim and brighter subjects, Schwartzhoff noted.
“As there are obviously moments of strife here centered around conflict, the composer talks about the fact the work is a musical discussion of the tragic results of prejudice, hate, hunger, inner conflict and, yes, war,” Schwartzhoff said. “It is meant to be a dialogue between the performers and the audience to not lose hope but to be in seeking more aggressive and humane solutions to conflict. It is his approach to this.”
Among the texts featured are the words of Sara Teasdale, American poet (1884-1933); Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), German artist with imagery of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), English poet; Frantisek Bass (1930-1944), 14-year-old Czechoslovakian poet who died at Auschwitz; Wendell Berry, the 85-year-old American poet, novelist and environmentalist; and Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–17/18 AD).
The quality of the texts is such that audience members would find it rewarding to read them before the concert, Schwartzhoff said. The texts can be found at themastersingers.net and will be in the printed program given out at the concert.
Two of the Master Singers who will have solos during “Carmina Pax” indicated the work has tremendous rewards as well as challenges.
“There’s so many great things about this piece — it’s gorgeous,” said Rebecca Santine, whose solo turn will be during the movement with the Teasdale poem “I Am a Pool of Blue.”
The poem, she explained, helps capture its title’s imagery.
“I feel like you’re kind of just floating in the water as you hear it, even the orchestra, the instrumentation and how the chords move and the way the tempo is, and even the melody; it’s kind of ethereal in the same way,” she said. “A lot of things are very nature oriented in this piece too. But I think the whole concept of finding peace in the world and in nature ... is prevalent in this piece.”
“I Am a Pool of Blue” is followed by the movement that gives a musical representation of the Book of Revelation’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which Santine said “almost sounds more violent” compared with what came before. But contrasts like that, she added, make “Carmina Pax” stand out.
“That’s one of the cool things about this piece is kind of the juxtaposition of the different moods that are being set or evoked from movement to movement,” she said. “There’s a lot of variety.”
Santine is delighted that her son, Dominic, also has a solo during “Carmina Pax” — he will sing the boy soprano part during the final movement.
“I’m over the moon about it,” she said.
Eric Nielsen will be of three soloists during the fourth movement, whose text is the poem “Invictus.”
“‘Invictus’ ... is such a powerful poem in and of itself, let alone the way Stroope has set this,” he said. “It’s really a song about courage in the face of conflict and of oppression, and I think each of (the soloists’) portions have a different flavor, but they’re all about overcoming.”
As Schwartzhoff pointed out, Henley’s composition has inspired such notable individuals as Nelson Mandela and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was quoted by Green Bay Packers great Jerry Kramer at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
The orchestra joining the Master Singers, which was formed specifically for this concert, consists of musicians who perform in such ensembles as the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra or are current or former students at UW-Eau Claire.
The Master Singers often perform with an orchestra for their spring concert, but audiences will hear two such collaborations this season, including in March, when once again they will work with the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra.
The second half of the concert will feature what Schwartzhoff considers “American folk history.” It includes four American folk hymns dating back to the early 1800s, arranged by Mack Wilberg, music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: “Saints Bound for Heaven,” “Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort,” “We’ll Shout and Give Him Glory” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Closing the second half will be another Wilberg arrangement, which Schwartzhoff calls “a new American classic”: “Homeward Bound,” with words and music by Marta Keen and often played in honor of military veterans as they return home.
“We’re not ending with a shout; we’re ending the concert reflective,” Schwartzhoff said.
Nielsen said he has found the hymns particularly moving. As he pointed out to another Master Singers performer: “I said, ‘It’s been a long time since music has almost moved me to the point of a tear, and these Wilberg tunes are such beautiful settings, particularly (“Homeward Bound”). It’s just: Oh wow! And Gary just pulls it out of us to make these texts touch not just our souls but those who are in attendance too.”
The challenges of “Carmina Pax,” Schwartzhoff said, include those harmonically related as well creating a tonal color that is fitting for the text. In an effort to make the group more comfortable with the work, he asked several Master Singers members to talk to the choir after a rehearsal “to aid in our understanding of the text and how and why these seven are together in this order.”
In sum, he praised how the singers have risen to scale this musical peak.
“Quite frankly, the choir is ready to do this,” he said. “We’re at performance level now, so they really have jelled nicely on this piece. So I think there is a lot of investment in this.”