Seattle’s choral music community is routinely passed over in praise and attention in favor of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. Even Seattle’s healthy early music community often garners more attention. This deficit persists even as local choral music groups have celebrated the contributions of Frank Ferko, centuries of “French” composers including Frank Martin, and Samuel Barber in his anniversary year during the month of March.
In the most recently concluded concert, Seattle Choral Arts presented what turned out to be the west coast premiere of Palo Alto, California (by way of Chicago and Valparaiso) composer Frank Ferko’s setting of the Stabat Mater. Most of the area’s local music lovers probably had never heard of Ferko before he talked publicly about composing the piece at a March 19th meet the composer reception held at Fare Start in downtown Seattle. Robert Bode, Choral Arts’ engaging music director even confessed that he didn’t know Ferko’s setting until he came across a recording of the piece by Cedille records, Anne Heider, and His Majestie’s Clerks.
Ferko spoke gushingly about his time in Indiana and Richard Wienhorst: composer, teacher and strong influence on his music. Between topical comments about his own background, his commissions, and the benefits of having a day job with health insurance, Ferko offered spontaneous and surprisingly candid insight into the Stabat Mater. He admitted that he shortened some stanzas, especially toward the end of the piece, to make the experience easier on the audience.
Sure enough, a number of shorter stanzas zip by near the end of the work, but they aren’t at the expense of the piece’s emotional weight and integrity. In fact, at the end of the performance one the people went up to the composer, shook his hand, and remarked “very well proportioned.”
I agree with this listener’s observation. Specific sections or interpolations never struck me as being overly long or dismissively short. One interpolation in particular uses poems by Charlotte Mayerson to create more short stanzas than in any other. Mayerson’s poems are the byproduct of a mother’s rage against God, the world, and AIDS – the disease that took her son. They are poems well suited for the aching lament of the Stabat Mater.
Earlier in the month, Seattle Pro Musica, another local choral group presented their own concert featuring a large choral piece. The concert dubbed “French Masters” (even though a good number of the composers on the program weren’t French) included smaller pieces by Poulenc, Durufle, Dufay, and Ockeghem but concluded with Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.
St. James’ Cathedral has a resonant acoustic that virtually freezes sound in the air. Pro Musica used this quality for wondrous effects during the Martin. When the choir sang “Hosana in excelsis” the sweep was undeniable. Later, as the piece closed, the “dona nobis pacem” sounded as pure as the request – “grant us peace.” Frank Martin’s mass deserves to be better known. It is one of the great a cappella piece of the 20th Century.
In West and Downtown Seattle, Eric Banks and his group The Esoterics, performed a concert covering all of Samuel Barber’s choral music; 2010 is the 100th anniversary of Barber’s birth. Barber was occupied with choral music and song over much of his life. An astounding fact when you consider that his entire a cappella output can fit on one CD. Even with a slim catalogue of choral works to his name, his output is diverse. Under the Willow Tree was adapted from his opera Vanessa. Barber also salvaged a few popular choruses from Antony and Cleopatra — a Metropolitan Opera failure that makes the critical response to Luc Bondy’s Tosca this season at the Met seem laudatory. On the other side of the choral spectrum are settings of religious and medieval texts. The most popular being the Agnus Dei. The lesser known, Virgin Martyrs is a sharp 20th century look at renaissance polyphony.
Banks told me the Barber series was so successful a donor offered up the money necessary to put The Esoterics’ Barber study on disk. With the album due in August, there will be plenty of time for more Barber related celebration.
Pro Musica, Choral Arts, and The Esoterics are just the tip of Seattle’s choral music community. Opus 7 dazzled audiences this season with neglected music by Martinu and Villa Lobos. The Seattle based Medieval Women’s Choir is readying itself for their 20th anniversary season. And Cappella Romana, a Portland group specializing in Slavic repertory, is also a favorite in Seattle.
One any one of these programs there are pieces that deserve to be better known – Martin’s Mass, Ferko’s Stabat Mater, and all of Barber’s a cappella music – but the same could be said about Seattle’s vibrant, diverse choral music community. They are just waiting to be heard.
Choral Arts director, Robert Bode. Photo credit Seattle Times.