The Songs of Saints & Troubadours (Early Music Choirs in Seattle)

During a blustery Seattle spring evening stepping into St. James Cathedral felt like entering another world. The evening light glittered on Italian renaissance stained glass windows, while statues of saints stared down from their lofty pedestals and people of various lifestyles gathered to witness a performance of the Medieval Women’s Choir led by medieval music expert and internationally-known musician, Margriet Tindemans. The 60 women vocalists and their guests, Richard Corbeil, Bill McJohn and Eric Mentzel presented a program of ancient chants from the Pilgrimage of St. James of Santiago.Across the city, on the same evening at the cavernous St. Mark’s Cathedral, another of Seattle’s Early Music vocal groups, The Tudor Choir performed renaissance polyphony, while honoring the religious theme of lilies and roses. The only thorns present was the process of deciding which concert to attend. Aficionados of baroque, renaissance and medieval music were experiencing a feast of riches on that weekend as in the case of most weekends between the months of September and May when numerous period ensembles appear at neighborhood churches, Seattle’s Town Hall and historic cathedrals such as St. Mark’s and St. James.

Those who preferred not to venture out of their homes, could pick up several recordings by Seattle’s Early Music performers or tune into Derek Blackwell’s Mostly Medieval, heard every Sunday on KBCS, (91.3 FM).

The Emerald City which boasts a formidable jazz community, experienced the rise and fall of the grunge years and boasts musical personalities such as Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwartz, Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones and Bing Crosby, also touts its share of harpsichords, baroque guitars and period music vocalists. Certainly Seattle cannot compete with major European cities such as Paris, Rome or London, but for audiences who enjoy the likes of Gregorian chants, sacred renaissance polyphony, Shaker tunes or who have been curious about medieval troubadour love songs, Seattle has a lot to offer.

According to Gus Denhard, Executive Director of Early Music Guild (EMG), a key player in Seattle’s Early Music community, Seattle provides the right atmosphere to foster growth of this ancient music. “Seattle is very special, and it has mostly to do with the history. Education, some disposable income, a love for the performing arts, and a bit of a counterculture twist are the ingredients that must come together and Seattle has this.”

Seeds planted in the 1970’s when folk revivals and renaissance fairs thrived flourish now. Unlike symphonic classical music in which people sometimes feel they need an academic degree to understand the nuances or hail from an elite background, attending an Early Music concert at Town Hall or any of the neighborhood churches feels like being whisked away to an age via a time machine when armored knights trampled across Europe and wooed those unobtainable queens with love songs.

Artistic Director-Conductor of Seattle Pro-Music, Karen P. Thomas encourages people of all backgrounds to attend these concerts. “This music was written for people to enjoy and be spiritually uplifted. The composers at that time didn’t intend it to be only for people with specialized knowledge, and it shouldn’t be seen that way today either.”

Why and how has Seattle become a hotbed of Early Music choral groups when this upstart city itself never experienced the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque eras first hand? The only academic opportunities for Seattle vocalists with a focus on Early Music comes in the form of workshops taught through professional affiliate programs such as American lute player Stephen Stubb’s Seattle Academy for Baroque Opera in partnership with EMG or a renaissance polyphony workshop taught in partnership with The Tudor Choir and England’s Tallis Scholars.

EMG, the oldest Early Music presenter in town was founded in 1977. At that time only two Early Music ensembles existed in the city, Seattle Pro Musica which formed in 1973, led by conductor, Richard Sparks and the Seattle Recorder Society which were at that time both amateur ensembles. According to Denhard, the audience at that time was, “old hippies for whom early music was revolutionary in its early days. The idea that music should be played on instruments that the composers would have recognized in an historically informed manner was new then, and raised the hackles of many main-stream classical ensembles and conductors.”

Twenty-nine years after EMG formed, that audience is dying off and now, according to Denhard, a new following replaced by younger middle age individuals supports Early Music because they just love the sound. “Some of them are influenced by the new age movement, with the love of plainsong chants and all things medieval being the best example.” Others enjoy renaissance polyphony, or find similarities between folk traditions and Early Music or enjoy listening to classical chamber music.

The 33 year-old Seattle Pro Musica led by Richard Sparks until 1980, currently enjoys both critical acclaim and enthusiastic public support. According to current artistic director, Karen Thomas, “During (Sparks’) tenure, Seattle Pro Musica earned a reputation as a leading force in the performance of Baroque music on period instruments, especially the music of J.S. Bach. Highlights included performances of Handel’s Messiah at Meany Hall and Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 at St. Mark’s Cathedral. In the early 1980’s, Seattle Pro Musica expanded its repertoire to include music of all eras, and moved away from its focus as an Early Music ensemble.”

When Thomas came on board in 1987, the non-professional choir featured 18 singers. Today the professional choir boasts 65 singers as well as, two smaller ensembles, a mixed voice 24 person choir and a 15-voice women’s choir. The smaller choirs focus on Early Music while the larger choir performs more contemporary work, newly commissioned or from, 19th through the 21st century composers, such as the Russian composer, Rachmaninoff, featured on one of Seattle Pro Musica’s 5 CDs. In fact, only 2 of the CDs, Alnight by the Rose and Weihnachten (German Christmas music), feature Early Music compositions. The 2005 recording, Music of the Spirit features, Italian composer Gregorio Allegri’s 1638 Miserere, known for its stratospheric soprano parts, (the composition is also featured in The Tudor Choir’s 2006-07 season).

Seattle Pro Musica under the helm of Thomas has received glowing reviews in local media, including Seattle Post Intelligencer and has been featured on KING Classical. Thomas comments on the media’s support of the choir. “I think we faced the same challenges that most classical musicians face–there is a great deal of competition for a rather small amount of media space allotted to classical music. We’ve always worked hard to give the finest performances we can, and we stay in touch with the media and get the word out about our activities.”

The choir ended their 2005-06 season with J.S. Bach’s Mass in B-minor at St. James Cathedral, where Seattle Pro Musica is a resident choir. The jam packed cathedral sweltered from the heat of enthusiastic audience members. The 60 plus member choir joined with Baroque Northwest who performed on period instruments and several guest soloists including, soprano Lisa Cardwell Pontèn, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Samuel J. Ludwig Rondarte and baritone Erich Parce.

The choir which took up the entire east apse of the cathedral ensconced near the organ and framed by towering stained glass windows, surrounded the musicians that comprise the Baroque Northwest orchestra. The mass which lasted over 2 hours offered a feasts for the ears and the eyes while the charismatic Thomas never missed a beat. Certainly in that regard, she rivals Gerard Schwartz in her magnetic podium presence. Conducting an orchestra of period musicians and a choir of over 60 singers along with soloists proves ambitious by most people standards and capacity audience members showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.

Formed in 1993, The Tudor Choir, which enjoys dual residency at St. Mark’s Cathedral and also St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina, also has received rave reviews in local and international media for both their concerts and recordings. Led by Director Doug Fullington, The Tudor Choir mainly focuses on European renaissance polyphony and early American music. At one concert you might hear Candlemas featuring both renaissance and contemporary composers such as Seattle composer Jeff Junkinsmith, who has also composed for St. Mark’s Compline Choir. Or you might hear the choir’s rousing Shaker’s liturgical and sacred Shapenote songs.

Similar to Seattle Pro Music, The Tudor Choir has built a solid reputation over the years. Supporters of the choir can feel secure in knowing that the passionate vocals will be virtually flawless and that they will be exposed to innovative programming of both Early Music from Europe and the U.S.

Founder Fullington speaks about the choir’s origins. “When we started, we were probably the only group giving complete concerts of unaccompanied renaissance music, so we drew a lot of local attention and began to be asked to collaborate with instrumental groups performing on early instruments… We’ve built a dedicated subscriber and donor base, with some particularly generous donors, funding major projects, including recordings over the years.”

To date, the choir has released 5 CDs on Everett based Loft Recordings. Fullington cites the success these recordings have received. “The Shapenote Album, (1996), sold well, especially in the southern states. We have American music concerts in the summer and we were asked to perform live on A Prairie Home Companion in 1997. Our Gentle Word recording of Kevin Siegfried’s Shaker arrangements received an excellent review in Fanfare, and our recent recording of renaissance polyphony by Clemens non Papa received an excellent review in Gramophone.”

Beyond this success, strong support in Seattle and a joint renaissance polyphony vocal workshop taught with “the” Tallis Scholars, the 12 core singers of The Tudor Choir have a bright future to look forward to, especially with more professional period vocalists moving to Seattle because of paid work that The Tudor Choir and Seattle Pro Musica offer. Will Seattle foster an internationally-acclaimed ensemble such as Anonymous 4 is a question that won’t be answered for several more years. And Seattle-based period vocalists need to keep their day jobs for a while longer.

The non-professional Medieval Women’s Choir led by Tindemans provides a unique experience for audiences who enjoy Gregorian chants, especially chants of the German Abbess Hildegard of Bingen sung by an all-woman choir. The diverse and enthusiastic audience that witnessed the Music for Santiago concert at St. James Cathedral proved that a need for being enraptured by ethereal women vocals exists in Seattle.

The Dutch viola da gambist Tindemans relocated to Seattle 1986 for personal reasons. She founded the choir with Sally Mitchell in 1990 as part of an Early Music organization, Northwest Center for Music Studies affiliated with EMG. The choir’s humble beginnings included 9 vocalists. Today, a vocalist can join the choir without auditioning, but she must add her name to the bottom of a long waiting list.

And yet, seeing this choir perform at St. James Cathedral can evoke a passionate response of someone wanting join an ethereal voice collective. Certainly an appeal of singing medieval liturgical chants in Latin and hearing voices soar up to the rafters of a vast cathedral exist, especially in Seattle where just listening to medieval chants might not suffice any longer. And with the popularity of international vocal ensembles such as Anonymous 4 and Trio Medieval the desire to join a medieval choir is further enhanced.

Tindeman reflects on this attraction, “I find that one of the reasons audience members of all backgrounds are so attracted to medieval music is that it’s so accessible; you don’t have to have a particular training to enjoy it. People enjoy Hildegard of Bingen’s music for many reasons; some like the meditative quality, some like the text and wonderful vivid imagery she uses, some like the melodies, some like the sound of the women’s voices, and all ways of enjoying it are valid. That is the beauty of good art, it can be appreciated on many levels.”

As more Seattlelites discover the Early Music gem gleaming on the fringe of the Emerald City, they can look forward to EMG’s presentation of the Monteverdi baroque opera, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea, with its “lust, lies and poisonous politics,” transported to Mussolini’s Fascist Rome, or concerts by the acclaimed Spanish viola da gambist Jordi Savall and England’s Tallis Scholars or any number of local period ensembles. They can also look forward to the debut recording of the Medieval Women’s Choir’s interpretation of Hildegard of Bingen’s chants.

Denhard predicts a bright future for Seattle’s Early Music community. “Next year’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi will attract a lot of attention… Seattle Opera audience members are already getting interested in what we do, and we hope to capitalize on that over the years.”

From Gregorian chants to baroque operas and other enticing historical performances appearing in theaters, cathedrals and intimate settings around Seattle, one is faced with the dilemma of too many choices.

Early Music Concerts in Seattle 2006-07

Baroque Nortwest

10/07 Reformation or Revolution: Music from 17th Century England, 8 p.m., pre-concert lecture 7:15 p.m.
10/09 Mediterraneo: From Byzantium to Iberia, 8 p.m., pre-concert lecture, 7:15 p.m.
01/20 Closing the Gap: Baroque Appalachia, 8 p.m., pre-concert lecture, 7:15 p.m.
04/14 Flutes in Flight II: Another High-Flying Adventure, 8 p.m., pre-concert lecture, 7:15 p.m.

All concerts take place at Bethany Lutheran Church, in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood. For information visit
http://www.BaroqueNorthwest.com

Gallery Concerts (The Intimate Art of Chamber Music)

(note only some of the following concerts are Early Music)

10/28-29 The Schumanns at Home (A House Concert for Robert Schumann), Tamara Friedman on Romantic fortepiano
11/25-26 A German Holiday Fest (German Baroque including recorder, harpsichord, viol da gamba and soprano vocals)
01/27-28 Viennese Virtuosi: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert), Laurel Wells (violin), Page Smith (violoncello), T. Friedman
03/10-11 Music for the Sun King, (celebrate the 375th birthday of Jean Baptiste Lully from the Sun King’s Court)
03/31-04/01 Viva Scarletti!: An Italian Master through the Ages, A House Concert

For more information go to: http://www.galleryconcerts.org

Medieval Women’s Choir

12/10 Laude Novella: An Italian Advent, (songs of praise from 14th century Italy), St. James Cathedral, 8 p.m.
03/11 The Art of Miniature: (courtly songs in rondeau form by Adam de la Halle and Jean Lescurel..), Temple Beth Am, 3 p.m.
05/19 River or Red (Music of Hildegard von Bingen), St. James Cathedral, 8 p.m.

http://www.medievalwomenschoir.org

Seattle Baroque Orchestra

10/14 A to Z: A Baroque Exploration, guest musician, Amir Koushkani of Iran, Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 8:00 p.m.
10/15 same program as above, 3:00 p.m.
11/11 Biber’s Rosary Sonatas: The Complete Cycle, Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 8:00 p.m.
11/12 same program, 3:00 p.m.
12/16 A Baroque Christmas Bash, (Excerpts from Handel’s Messiah & Corelli’s Christmas Concerto), Benaroya Hall, 8:00 p.m.
12/17 same program, Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 3:00 p.m.
03/17 Brian Asawa Sings Vivaldi, Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 8:00 p.m.
03/18 same program, 3:00 p.m.
05/05 Handel’s Theater Music: A collaboration with Seattle Early Dance, Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 8:00 p.m.
05/06 same program, 3:00 p.m.

Fore more information and to subscribe, go to http://www.seattlebaroque.org

Seattle Pro Musica

12/09 An American Christmas, Town Hall, 3 and 7:30 p.m.
12/16 An American Christmas, Chapel at Bastyr University, Bothell, WA, 3 and 7:30 p.m.
03/09-10 Chichester Psalms, St. James Cathedral, 8:15/8:00 p.m.
06/17 American Masterpiece Choral Festival Grand Finale Concert with Dale Warland, Benaroyal Hall, 7:30 p.m.

http://www.seattlepromusica.org

The Tudor Choir

10/21 Victoria’s Requiem and Music for the Sistine Chapel, St. Mark’s Cathedral, 8:00 p.m.
10/22 same program as above, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA, 3:00 p.m.
12/16 A German Renaissance Christmas, St. Mark’s Cathedral, 8:00 p.m.
12/17 Same program as above, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, 3:00 p.m.
02/24 Fireworks (Music by Renaissance master William Cornysh), Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.
02/25 Same program as above, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, 3:00 p.m.
03/31 Songs of Devotion featuring Allegri’s legendary Miserere, St. Mark’s Cathedral, 8:00 p.m.
04/01 Same program as above, Bastyr University Chapel, Kenmore/Bothell, 3:00 p.m.

http://www.tudorchoir.org

The Early Music Guild presents

11/19 Les Boreades De Montreal: Inventioni Stravaganti, Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.
12/02 The Tallis Scholars, Renaissance Masterpieces, Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.
12/03 The Tallis Scholars, Music from the Sistine Chapel, Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.
02/09-10 L’Incoronazione Di Poppea by Monteverdi, Intiman Playhouse at Seattle Center, 7:30 p.m.
03/17 Ciaramella: Joyeux Entree, Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.
04/22 The Netherlands Bach Society: J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Town Hall, 8:00 p.m.

(The Early Music Guild also presents programs for families, please go to http://www.earlymusicguild.org for details)

All of the above organizations sell season subscriptions. I encourage you to support Early Music by purchasing subscriptions if this is an option for you. Please see above web sites for details.

Photo 1 – Medieval Women’s Choir, 2 – Karen Thomas, 3 – The Tudor Choir

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