What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of church choirs?
A stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace”? An off-key attempt at “The Old Rugged Cross?” An elderly soprano stretching for that note she just can’t quite reach?
No matter what your experience with church choirs has been, that perception is likely to be challenged and stretched with the next Southern Exposure new music series concert this Saturday. The award-winning series, which presents classical music of the 20th and 21st century, is venturing forth into territory it’s never tackled since its founding in 2001 — an all-choral concert.
But this isn’t the music of your mom’s church choir — unless, perhaps, your mom sings at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
Saturday’s concert — which is free and starts at 7:30 p.m. in USC’s School of Music Recital Hall — features the Trinity Cathedral Chamber Singers. Rather than the tried-and-true hymns you might have grown up on, they’ll perform 20th-century classics by Arvo Pärt, Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen, John Tavener and William Albright, along with more recent works by Stephen Stucky and Southern Exposure founder John Fitz Rogers, among others.
“They have been singing some of these works at Trinity in preparation,” says series director Michael Harley.
But for the most part, these aren’t works you’d typically hear in church. For one, they’re just too hard — the average church choir is made up of non-professionals and rehearses just once per week.
“Like most of the music on the series, a lot of these pieces are more adventurous,” Harley says. “They would be too difficult for the average church choir.”
Led by organist and music director Jared Johnson, the Trinity Cathedral Chamber Singers are not an average church choir — rather, they are among the best in the Southeast. The group tours Europe every few years; most recently, it went to Italy in 2012.
Founded in 2004, the choir was formed specifically to sing Compline, a contemplative service marking the final service of the day and sometimes called Night Prayer. The choir’s repertoire is rooted in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, Johnson says, but it extends to a lot of contemporary a cappella music, too.
It might seem odd for a choir to embrace repertoire spanning some 1,200 years — Gregorian chant crystallized as a form around the year 750 — but the combination of old and new is something that some contemporary composers, among them Pärt and Stucky, have embraced.
“In some aesthetics, there has been a simplification of language and a return to language that is less complicated,” Harley says. “And Pärt would be a prime example; his music is very triadic and repetitive, and it takes inspiration from church bells and chimes.”
Stucky’s contemporary Whispers takes inspiration directly from William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, first published in 1605. The choir will sing Byrd’s original piece and follow it immediately with Stucky’s.
Stucky weaves Byrd’s text together with lines from Walt Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death.”
“It’s a beautiful piece he wrote for Chanticleer,” Johnson says. “The texts overlap each other in a most extraordinary way.”
Some of the pieces on the program are more harmonically adventurous, Harley says, while others are “often quite tonal and beautiful and instantly accessible.” But, Harley emphasizes, “just because a piece is new doesn’t mean it will be difficult.”
Take, for example, John Fitz Rogers’ 2006 piece Qui Habitat.
“It certainly has moments of dissonance, but it is spare and beautiful,” Harley says.
Then there are older pieces that might require some patience. Olivier Messiaen ‘s 1937 O Sacrum Convivium is hardly new by Southern Exposure standards, but its modernist tonal language might still be challenging for some listeners.
Johnson describes it as “an ecstatic piece that comes out of this completely other-worldy tonal language.”
Adds Harley: “The Messiaen piece has more adventurous musical language, but the blend of a good choir can bring off a piece like that and make it sound stunning,” Harley says. “That is the special thing about this group.”
Plus, he adds, exposing listeners to new music is at the heart of what Southern Exposure is about.
“Contemporary musical language can find ways of finding sentiments that are deep and full of anguish,” Harley says. “It can surpass traditional tonal language in some instances.”
Adds Johnson: “We often have misconceptions about choral music, fostered through the ages by the church, being old-fashioned, stuffy or dogmatic. This program will stand that notion on its head.”
The Southern Exposure concert is on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the University of South Carolina’s School of Music Recital Hall at 813 Assembly St. Admission is free.Visit music.sc.edu for more information.
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