On a cold February evening, I watched The Singers perform a program consisting of works by John Tavener, Arvo Part, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Basilica of St. Mary. As director Matthew Culloton explained in his opening remarks, the concert was something of a midpoint in the group's season, which also happens to be their tenth. For a decade now Culloton has led The Singers and worked to fulfill their stated mission of "serving as artists, educators, and advocates of the choral art." I would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this community who would argue that this mission is not being carried out.
In case any music lovers who live in Minnesota are unaware, we live in an area rich with choral music. This abundance is one of the many reasons our state is a great one for those who are passionate about music. When I asked Culloton what The Singers brings to an already bounteous choral community, he pointed to the group's "programmatic variety" as well as their commitment to perform new music.
"By season's end we will have reached 70 world premiere performances — a number of new works that is not matched by any other ensemble in the Twin Cities — in just 10 years," he told me. Indeed, the group's concert at the end of May will consist entirely of new music: works from two of their Composers-in-Residence, Abbie Betinis and Jocelyn Hagen, and world premieres of music culled from an open call for scores.
While listening to the sounds of Tavener, Part, and Mozart in the Basilica, I was struck by how much of a Minnesota experience I was having. No one living south of the Mason-Dixon line would have left their home to brave the frigid temperatures and poor roads still affected by a recent snowstorm. The first half of the program, which consisted of Tavener's Funeral Ikos and Part's Berliner Messe, was somber and meditative and felt very appropriate for a dark evening that reminded everyone of winter's unyielding grip. I felt gratitude while considering that we have such a beautiful space in the Basilica and local groups of high quality like The Singers to perform in it.
The whole experience also felt Minnesotan because even though the performance was in such a grand space that would not look out of place in Europe of old, I spotted familiar faces in the audience as well as on stage. A feeling of mutual support among audience members and performers is not uncommon at these choral performances, and Culloton strives to make that a part of The Singers' identity. He says that "audiences invest in our artists, getting to know them personally. There is an approachability that we foster by being in the hall before and after concerts, greeting and mingling with audiences."
While the concert's first half was more subdued, Mozart's Coronation Mass in the second ushered in a lively and regal mood. I couldn't help but feel as though there was something of a connection between the celebratory nature of the piece and The Singers' tenth anniversary. This was no coincidence, and Culloton told me that "the joy and positive spirit reflected in this work parallels my own personal mood about the organization as we reach this milestone."
The group is not resting on their laurels, however. They have more concerts this spring, and their 2014-2015 season has been announced. When I asked Culloton about his plans for the next ten years, he mentioned "a series of initiatives based on lab experiences" that would take The Singers out into the community to work with conductors, singers and composers. He also spoke of their place in a broader context: "In the next decade, our challenge to ourselves is that we continue to move the Minnesota choral tradition forward. We recognize the pillars of this legacy, and we aim to combine innovative programming and collaborations as we cut our own path into this great musical landscape."
David Lindquist is a writer, teacher, and singer living in St. Paul.
Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!
No serenity means no Muti for Rome Opera
Riccardo Muti quits as the Rome Opera's lead conductor after six years of ongoing funding, management and labor strife. Muti says he needs "serenity" to do his job effectively.