SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Voices opens its season on Saturday under a new artistic director and a program that is “Fit for a Monarch.” The concert also reflects how a chorus, now in its 52nd year, has had to change with the unexpected.
Last year, the chorus/board changed its name from the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society because that name didn’t reflect its membership, the location of where it performed or its repertoire. Last spring, realizing their artistic director William Jon Gray was ailing (he passed away in July), they contacted Michael Lister to lead the group in an interim capacity. Lister, who is a highly experienced singer/pianist/choral director, visiting assistant professor of music and theater at SUNY Albany and music director at the 1st Presbyterian Church in Albany, said he “happily accepted” the position.
Then, in a program that had already been put together but had been postponed, the world learned about Queen Elizabeth II’s death this September.
“We thought it appropriate to celebrate her life and reign,” Lister said.
So pieces were added, expanding not only the length of the program but more for the 60 singers to learn at their weekly rehearsals. It’s all been a challenge.
“I’d conducted some but most are new for the chorus,” Lister said. “The most difficult piece is Elizabeth’s funeral piece, ‘Who Shall Separate Us’. We got the music but it’s brand new.”
Written by Scottish composer James MacMillan, Lister and the board had to work with the publisher because there’s no printed score. So they purchased the music digitally and made their own copies.
“The harmonies are complex. It takes discipline to achieve the full range of music,” he said.
Another work that’s kept them all on their toes is Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” (1779) and has become one of his most popular works and is often performed. It’s about thirty minutes in length.
“He constantly changes styles from turbulent to a Viennese waltz in a few measures and the chorus is singing almost the entire time,” Lister said.
“They need really good ears as to whom to blend with, who to be in harmony to. Sometimes they sing in unison and the rhythm is the same and then shifts to polyphony to dark and tragic in long sustained lines to quick to slow tempos.”
Many of the other works, especially those connected to the Queen, are more accessible vocally but may be unfamiliar to audiences. These include Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad” written for King Edward II’s coronation and used also for Elizabeth’s’; William McKie’s “We Wait for Thy Loving Kindness” for Elizabeth’s wedding; Canadian composer Healey Willan’s “O Lord Our Governor” written on commission for Elizabeth’s coronation; and Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” which is really God Save the King or Queen, Lister said.
Also to be sung are Randall Thompson’s “Last Words of David” based on the Biblical text; Joshua Shank’s “David’s Lamentation” on the death of Absalom, who was David’s son; and John Rutter’s setting of Psalm 23 from his Requiem.
Music that looks toward heaven or the afterlife and has an Americana-folk or spiritual theme are: “Come Away to the Skies”; “Bright Morning Stars”; “Rockin’ Jerusalem”; and “Omnis Sol.”
There are four soloists who will sing in only two of the works: soprano Sylvia Stoner-Hawkins, mezzo-soprano Tess McCarthy, tenor Casey Gray, and baritone Paul LaRosa, and a 15-piece chamber orchestra.
It’s all a lot to do but Lister said everyone was on board.
“It’s exciting and challenging because of so many different styles from classical to baroque,” he said. “But they’re doing very well. . .and I’m trying to give my all to guide the ensemble.”
Other upcoming Saratoga Voices concerts are “100 Years of Broadway Musical Cabaret” Feb. 11 and 12 at the Vista at Van Patten Golf Club; and “French Choral Masterpieces” May 13 at Zankel Music Center.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19
WHERE: Universal Preservation Hall, 25 Washington St., Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $32.50, $27.50 (seniors)
MORE INFO: www.saratogavoices.org; www.proctors.org; 518 346-6204