“Sacred Jazz” takes Ars Nova into new territory

Oct. 5 and 6 concert features composer Will Todd’s “Mass in Blue”

By Peter Alexander Oct. 4 at 12 noon

Ars Nova, Boulder’s a capella choir that specializes in Renaissance and contemporary concert music, is venturing into new territory.

“It is a bit of a departure for us,” says Thomas Edward Morgan, artistic director of Ars Nova, talking about a program of “Sacred Jazz.” That program, performed by Ars Nova and guest artists, will open their season Oct. 5 in Boulder and Oct. 6 in Cherry Hills Village.

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Thomas Edward Morgan (center) and the Ars Nova Singers

It was the main piece on the program, Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, that initially got Morgan’s attention “This piece has been on my radar screen for a while now, partly because the choral writing in it is really excellent,” he says. “You don’t find a lot of extended contemporary pieces that have this level of choral writing.”

The six-movement Mass will be performed with a jazz trio comprising Scott Martin, piano; Mark Diamond, bass; and Russ Meissner, drums. Soprano Kathryn Radakovich will appear as soloist for the Mass.

The Mass in Blue takes about 40 minutes, Morgan says. The concert will open with a separate 20-minute set of a capella pieces. The entire program, with about 60 minutes of music, will be performed without intermission.

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Thomas Edward Morgan

Opening the season with the Mass in Blue “was an opportunity for us to perform a piece with this level of choral writing, and also to reach a new crowd, with the jazz influence and the spectacular players that we have,” Morgan says. “We hope that we reach new people right at the beginning of the season who will then be interested in what we do and come back through the rest of the season.”

The composer, Will Todd, is a British jazz pianist who brings both his jazz experience and his knowledge of the English choral tradition to the composition of the Mass in Blue. The piece is an adventure for both the choir and for the jazz trio, in that it is deeply rooted in the Blues tradition, but also almost entirely written out.

Compared to most jazz combo work, Morgan says, “this has considerably more structure, which is interesting for the audience as well as for the choir, and I think interesting for the trio because it‘s certainly more composed than what they usually do. They pretty much have to play from a part because there’s a lot of time signature changes. It requires jazz musicians who can read and know where the changes happen.”

In fact, Morgan says, the piece is almost “over-composed,” in that the jazz trio has parts that could be played straight through as written, without improvisation. That way it can be performed by players who prefer to read it straight, but it can also be done with more freedom by proficient jazz artists.

“The way we approach it is we have the trio play in the style and not be note-specific to what the composer wrote,” Morgan explains. “The choir is really specifically notated, and they’ll do exactly what’s printed. It’s what’s underneath and around that, that gets a little bit freer, so it certainly has the jazz feel to it.”

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Kathryn Radakovich

A particular challenge, Morgan says, was finding a soprano soloist who can handle the demands of the part Todd has written. “The part for the soprano soloist is very virtuosic,” Morgan says. “We went through a couple of sopranos to find the right one to make it work, because it’s challenging. It’s high and very virtuosic. It takes the energy of the choir just one level further.”

The soloist Morgan found, Radakovich, is an extraordinarily versatile artist. She teaches vocal jazz at Metropolitan State University in Denver and has performed in Denver’s major jazz venues, but she also performs with early music groups including the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado and the Denver Early Music Consort. As an early music singer she has appeared at the Montana Early Music Festival, and the Victoria Bach Festival, among others.

The opening set will showcase the versatility of Ars Nova, Morgan says. It will include a Renaissance piece by English composer John Shepperd, a new piece by Eric Banks that includes text in Middle Persian, a spiritual arrangement, and Duke Ellington’s classic “Come Sunday.”

“We wanted to give the audience a little bit of a taste of what else we do,” Morgan says. “We mostly do a cappella things, so we’re going to do a 20-minute set a cappella.

“It’s a chance to introduce this audience to a wider selection of what Ars Nova does, so they may be more interested in coming back to hearing us again.”

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Ars Nova Singers

Sacred Jazz!
Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Morgan, conductor
With Kathryn Radakovich, soprano
Scott Martin,piano; Mark Diamond, bass; Russ Meissner, drums

A capella opening set including music by John Sheppard, Eric Banks, Duke Ellington
Will Todd: Mass In Blue

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder
Tickets

7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6
Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills
Tickets

 

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