New Classical Tracks: Familiar songs with something different to say

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
July 2, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Singers is the name of a group of Minnesota choral artists who have been sharing their innovative artistry of established and new choral works for almost ten years. Matthew Culloton is the Founding Artistic Director and Conductor of this ensemble, which recently released a collection of traditional American songs titled At the River.

"A lot of these titles we've been performing since our first season back in 2004," he explains. "A lot of our seasons have included a program of American music, whether it be folk song or music for the stage, but this collection almost came about a lot by accident, simply looking at the list of music that had been arranged for us over the years and then some of my other favorite arrangements. And it just started to look like a pretty fun project."

The best moments in rehearsing these traditional tunes, according to Culloton, are when it's so good you want to do it again right away. "I just think a lot of these tunes go right into the veins and stream through us. Things like Shenandoah, the James Erb classic arrangement, it's just hard not to find yourself keep singing it over and over."

"I love this arrangement by Dale Adelmann of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It uses a slightly different harmonic language and laid-back style. Brian Steele is the wonderful baritone soloist who helps co-produce the CDs with me. And I just think it's a rather fetching arrangement. I've loved it a long time."

The Singers don't shy away from challenging arrangements or tight harmonies, two things Culloton polished during his five years with The Dale Warland Singers, where he served as Music Advisor, Assistant Conductor, and Bass Section Leader.

"This is a group that does close harmony really well. Some groups sort of cower at that but I can ask them to put some more breath in their tone - a lot of voice teachers would scream at me for that. But I think the ability to change tone and be flexible as a singer is one of those primary things I look for, all the way back to their first audition."

That vocal flexibility is heard throughout this new collection, especially in the well-known songs of American composer Stephen Foster who was born on the Fourth of July.

"I think it was really important for us to go beyond just folk songs and spirituals and American Hymnody and include some of that music from one of the first American choral masters and that's Stephen Foster."

Culloton clarifies, "You have to choose carefully with him, in terms of lyrics. But one of the important things for us was that we do two arrangements on this album by Jack Halloran. And these songs, Nelly Bly and Camptown Races, have fun little twists here and there from the arranger Jack Halloran who worked with everybody from Ray Charles to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra."

The Singers tap into the talents of several Minnesota-based composers for this recording, including a powerful a cappella version of Wade in the Water, arranged by Aaron David Miller; and a harmonically challenging version of Long Time Trav'ling, arranged by Abbie Betinis.

Matthew Culloton also arranged six of the 18 songs on At the River. "I like the challenge of just trying to find a little different hook on some of these pieces," he explains. "There have been groups that have asked me for Shenandoah and I turn it down, saying no, there's enough of those. And there are plenty of arrangements of Deep River, but this one is actually a special arrangement to me because the first half was written for my church choir at House of Hope in St. Paul. And I thought, you know, I should extend this piece, make more of a full-length anthem out of it. So I wrote the middle part for the Singers and the outer parts for the House of Hope Motet Choir. I really like the challenge of finding something a little different to say about these well-known tunes."

At the River is a musical gathering of familiar American folk songs, spirituals and hymns shared in a not-so-familiar way. But as you listen to this collection, you'll quickly discover why these pieces have become standards in their repertoire.

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