Ars Nova and Boulder Chorale start 2022–23 with unusual programming
By Peter Alexander Nov. 3 at 10:20 p.m.
Two of Boulder’s choral organizations open their 2022–23 seasons this weekend. The programs by the Ars Nova Singers and the Boulder Chorale could hardly be more different—bizarrely chromatic music from the late Renaissance and music from Middle Eastern cultures, respectively—but they are similar in being well outside the mainstream of choral repertoire.
If you search for stimulating and unusual musical experiences, as I do, you could have a busy weekend. Both programs look promising for the adventurous listener.
In a program titled “Wonder,” the Ars Nova Singers and conductor Tom Morgan will explore the music of Carlo Gesualdo de Venosa, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. Gesualdo has a secure place in music history because of the extraordinary chromaticism of the harmonic language in his madrigals, which is unlke any other music written at the time. Performances will be Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Boulder, Longmont and Denver (details below).
Gesualdo’s notoriety in music history also derives from the fact that he killed his fist wife and her lover when her found them together. Although he was not charged with a crime, due to the circumstances, he felt a burden of guilt for the rest of his life, which may have contributed to the intensity of expression in the music he wrote.
Ars Nova will perform seven of the madrigals from the last two collections Gesualdo wrote, Books 5 and 6, which were published in 1611. This was right at the transition from the Renaissance style of counterpoint to the more chord-based style of the early Baroque period.
“You just don’t hear some of these chords and changes [Gesualdo wrote] until the 20th century,” Morgan says. “It’s such fascinating music to me, and I think the singers enjoy it because you don’t have anything like it in the repertoire. And it’s a lot of fun to do.”
The chromaticism is most extreme in the slower sections of the madrigals, giving the singers the time to make the unexpected note and chord changes. The most extreme chord changes are associated with the most extreme emotions, whereas other parts of the madrigals are more straightforward, and may even move in a fairly brisk tempo.
“It’s challenging for the singers,” Morgan says, “because the character of the music changes word to word. It’s fascinating how quickly the affect changes in the pieces.”
In spite of the extreme use of chromatic notes and chords, Morgan points out that in some ways, Gesualdo was not really a revolutionary composer. “He’s really clinging to the old imitative counterpoint [of the Renaissance era], but stretches the harmonic language as far as it would go.”
The constant shifting of chords gives the music an uneasy, ungrounded quality that can be tiring to listen to. “How to present Gesualdo is always a bit of a challenge,” Morgan says. “A straight-through listening of Book V or Book VI would be really hard for a modern audience. Too many in a row, the singer gets tired, [and] the listeners get overwhelmed.”
In order to give listeners a break, Morgan invited two instrumentalists—Ann Marie Morgan on viola da gamba and Sandra Wong on violin and the Swedish folk instrument the nyckelharpa—to play interludes in between the madrigals. “We’re doing little pairs of madrigals, and interspersing them with completely instrumental things,” Morgan explains. “Some are from [Gesualdo’s] era, some from slightly later.”
“That allows the ear to refresh and allows the mind to process things differently, and then you come back to Gesualdo. Ann Marie (Morgan) and Sondra (Wong) are both wonderful to work with, and by breaking (the madrigals) up into smaller chunks it’s better for both the singers and the audience.”
While Morgan is exploring challenging music of the past, conductor Vicki Burrichter and the Boulder Chorale continue their explorations of world music. In a program titled “Origins: The Fertile Crescent,” they will present music from across the Middle East, from Sephardic Jewish folk songs from Spain to Israel to Egypt, Tunisia and Afghanistan.
Performances will be Saturday and Sunday in Boulder, and will also be available by live stream on Sunday (details below).
Burrichter came to the subject for this concert by listening to the Trio Joubran, three Palestinian brothers from Nazareth who all perform on the oud—a stringed instrument from the Middle East that is the predecessor of the lute.
“The sound of the oud is magnificent—mysterious and deep,” Burrichter says. “The three of them playing together was beautiful. I listened to them a lot, and then I thought I should listen to more Arabic music. I’m very excited about it, but it’s the most nerve-racking concert I’ve ever done, because it’s so outside what I know about.”
Aside from her lack of background in the style, Burrichter had to adapt the music to an American choir. For one thing, the music does not have much harmony, and for another, it uses languages that hardly anyone in the choir knew. She tackled these issues first by hiring a guest band assembled and led by David Hinojosa that includes percussion, violin, bass and an oud player, plus a singer, Catrene Payan, who is an Arabic-speaking Israeli. They will perform with the chorale and separately.
She also turned to Adam Waite, who has made arrangements for the Chorale in the past, to make versions of the songs for the chorale’s singers. And she asked Raouf Zaidan, who has sung with the group, to help coach the language. “He lives in two worlds,” Burrichter says. “He’s an Egyptian but also a Western opera singer. He was able to help the choir with the language.”
Many of the pieces on the program are well known in the Middle East, including some that have been sung by the most popular singers in their home countries. “When I showed Raouf what is in the concert, he said ‘These are songs everybody knows,’” she says.
For example, she mentioned Oum Kulthum, an Egyptian singer who was called the Star of the East. “She is like a goddess figure there” Burrichter says. “She’s done ‘Lammaa Badda,’ and [Lebanese singer] Fairouz has done it. In the Middle East, everybody knows that song. And ‘El-Heelwa Dii’ is also extremely popular.”
Burrichter says that the melodies are not hard to sing, but there are nuances that are not easy for an American chorus. “We were trying to make it so that they could sing it, because they don’t speak the language, they don’t have experience with this music which is so very different from American music.
“We hope Arabic people or people from Israel who come to the concert will say, this is a group that tried their very best to represent and respect our culture. What I’m trying to do is for people to enter a cultural experience—the audience, the singers, everyone.
“The most important thing in the end is not the language, it is the joy of it.”
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Ars Nova Singers, Tom Morgan, artistic director
With Sandra Wong, violin and nyckelharpa, and Ann Marie Morgan, viola da gamba
- Carlo Gesualdo: Selections from Madrigals, Books 5 and 6
- Instrumental music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4
St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5
Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum
4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6
St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St., Denver
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“Origins: The Fertile Crescent”
Boulder Concert and Chamber Chorales
Vicki Burrichter, artistic director
With Catrene Payan, singer, and instruments led by David Hinojosa
- Music of Arabic lands in the Middle East
4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, and Sunday, Nov. 6
First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder
TICKETS for live performances and for live stream Sunday only