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Crosscut Tout: Choral inspiration

The 70-member a cappella group Seattle Pro Musica performs this weekend (May 21-22) at St. James Cathedral in its final concert of the season.

Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica

Whenever discussion of musical education in America comes up — or, more accurately, of its alarming decline — it’s worth remembering the decisive role choral music once played in this country. Singing societies of every variety helped democratize a sense of musical citizenship. And they still do in places as disparate as Sweden and South Korea, where significant parts of the population are involved in choral singing.

From the choral point of view, Seattle boasts an especially abundant ecosystem. If the constant trotting out of safe classics like Handel’s Messiah or Beethoven’s Ninth has made you allergic to choral music, all the more reason to freshen your ears with the imaginative musical range that’s on the bill of Seattle Pro Musica's final concert of the season this weekend, which is titled “Appear and Inspire.”

“In choral music, there’s more of a sense that you can take chances and try new and different things,” observes Karen P. Thomas, Seattle Pro Musica’s artistic director and conductor since 1987.

The expense involved in running larger institutions like symphony orchestras and opera companies is one reason programming gravitates toward predictable repertoire. It’s not at all unusual, in contrast, for selections on a choral concert to range widely across the centuries, offering a mix of classics, unfamiliar pieces from the past, and contemporary composers that feels organic rather than forced. “One thing I love about the choral art,” says Thomas, “is that you have this enormous repertoire, for forces of many different sizes, that spans from the early Middle Ages through contemporary works.”

Founded in 1972, the a cappella Seattle Pro Musica actually comprises three different ensembles, including the 70 voices of the full ensemble, a midsize one of 30 singers, and a 15-voice women’s chamber choir. Thomas explains that the variation of textures weaving around the acoustic space of St. James Cathedral envelopes the audience in different ways and creates “an enormous color spectrum.”

This diversity of choral styles and textures is well illustrated by her choices for “Appear and Inspire.” The concert takes its title from the refrain of Benjamin Britten's “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” a setting of W.H. Auden's poem which updates the traditional invocation to this patron saint of music (on whose feast day, as it happens, Britten was born).

Thomas remarks that this forms the thematic centerpiece for the concert, which includes other pieces that also have “an inspirational quality, suggesting things that connect humanity to something greater than the individual self” — a connection, it might be added, for which choral music itself is an ideal metaphor.

Thomas has also lined up 19th-century pieces large and small — Joseph Rheinberger’s "Mass in E-flat for Double Choir" and a brief motet by Anton Bruckner that itself should be worth the price of admission — as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams' “Five Mystical Songs” (featuring acclaimed baritone Erich Parce and organist Joseph Adam), and an array of contemporary pieces. Especially appealing among the latter is one by up-and-coming London-born composer Tarik O’Regan, whose chamber opera based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” will be premiered this fall. O’Regan’s “Columba aspexit” is based on a sequence from Hildegard von Bingen (which will also be sung), making a nice arc spanning 10 centuries.

If you go: Seattle Pro Musica performs “Appear and Inspire” at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (May 21 and 22), St. James Cathedral, Ninth Avenue and Marion Street, Seattle, 206-781-2766. Tickets cost $12-32 and are available on the group's website.

Currently based in Seattle, Thomas May began writing about the arts as a freelance music critic for the Washington Post under Tim Page. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader, the first full-length book in English devoted to this leading American composer. May blogs about the arts at memeteria.com and tweets @memeteria. You can reach him c/o editor@crosscut.com.


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